As his sabbatical with the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) comes to a close, 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. had the opportunity to reflect on his past six months before passing the torch to the next teacher of the year.
“This program is not simply an opportunity for a teacher to have a platform – it has been the opportunity for a teacher to be the steward of his students’ voices, to do the sometimes painful, but always beautiful, work of shifting the lens, and future, of education,” said Carver at the Kentucky Board of Education’s (KBE’s) meeting on Aug. 3. Carver taught English and French at Montgomery County High School when he was named the Kentucky Teacher of the Year.
Carver’s main passion project during his sabbatical with KDE’s Division of Communications was advocating for historically underserved groups and working to ensure all students feel safe in schools.
“I have seen and met, have heard and attempted to amplify the voice of, countless people who have shared needs and concerns as members of groups and people who have individual needs and concerns. All of us are different from others, all of us want to be seen and heard as individuals, and all of us want to contribute positively to our communities, our state, our world,” said Carver.
In May, Carver testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in Washington, D.C. He called for representatives to pass the Equality Act, the Safe Schools Improvement Act and make discrimination against LGBTQ people illegal to protect all students from harassment.
As a part of his sabbatical, Carver interviewed many students in Kentucky about their experiences growing up and in school. When he asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, all of them had big dreams: doctor, nurse, teacher, truck driver.
But a large majority also told Carver about the potential futures they feared. They did not want to be on drugs, they did not want to be homeless, they did not want to be too poor for food. Carver asked the students how people could help them see their futures through a different, more hopeful lens, and not through that frame.
He said a 16-year-old girl who had lost her father in an accident offered up this answer: “Honor? Can we honor the pains that have caused us to be afraid by working towards a better life?”
“Her words sunk deep into me and they have formed the core of every speech I have ever given, every interview, every publication, every moment of my sabbatical as 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, only she was much smarter than me and put it in beautifully succinct terms,” he said.
Over the past year, Carver has:
- Spoken, collaborated or worked on projects in 22 states, as well as the United Kingdom and France;
- Served as keynote speaker or presenter at a dozen conferences, including the national American Federation of Teachers conference and the Kentucky Educators Rising conference;
- Been interviewed by several local, state and international news outlets, including ABC, NBC, NPR Kentucky, Ed Weekly, KET and Le Monde out of France;
- Been published by the American Federation of Teachers; the Courier Journal; the Lexington Herald-Leader; the Education Post; the Morehead Writing Project in conjunction with the Hindman Settlement School; the Council Chronicle; Narrative 4 and The Washington Post;
- Attended the 2022 National and State Teachers of the Year Event at the White House and met President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
“Willie has been an amazing ambassador for Kentucky’s public schools and students,” said Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass. “Through his ambassadorship, he has shone a light across Kentucky and the nation on how important the work of elevating student’s voices is to the future of education. We are thankful for his time at the department and for his service to public education in the Commonwealth.”
Closing his speech, Carver said he felt inspired by Kentucky’s students and has learned the most from them during his time as Teacher of the Year.
“Love pervades education. It’s why we are here,” he said. “We don’t just deliver content to the kids in the room. We sit with them, we get to know their struggles, their fears, their hopes and their ambitions. And we do everything in our power, sitting right beside of them, to get them to their wildest hope, to transform their lenses so that we might transform their lives.”
A recording of Carver’s presentation is available on the KDE YouTube page.
The 2023 Kentucky Teacher of the Year will be announced at a ceremony in September.