Picture of smiling man wearing glasses, a shirt and a tie.

Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr., 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year

Hello. My name is Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. and I am proud, honored and humbled to be serving as the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.

I’m a Floyd County native. I was a holler kid, a trailer kid and a mountain kid. I also was fortunate to be a student of Floyd County Schools.

In a childhood that was sometimes filled with pain, hunger and hurt, school was – for me – a safe and warm place. My teachers believed in me, taught me, fed me and sometimes – quite literally – clothed me. But what I remember most is that they consistently loved me. I always knew, every moment I was in school, that there was someone who believed in me and wanted me to succeed, who was willing to sacrifice for me. Kids from hollers know that sacrifice is the language of love.

It is in their warm light, from a space carved out by their kindness and their dedication, that I have grown strong and proud of where I come from. It is with the same light that I have watched most of my fellow teachers and administrators teach and lead.

My hardworking parents sent me to school believing, rightfully so, that it would be a path out of a difficult life and into a better one. I believe that school should be the on-ramp to a road to success, happiness, good health and good citizenship. I am certain in a way kin to faith that my experience in Floyd County Public Schools made me more successful, happier, healthier and a better citizen. It is on this foundation that I build my platform as the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.

For some in this great Commonwealth, that school-created on-ramp is easier to access than others. For some, school itself can sometimes act more as a roadblock than an on-ramp. I believe in the dignity and potential of every child in Kentucky and I know that we can do better for those students.

We can do better for those Appalachian students, those students of color, those students who are English learners, those students who identify as LGBTQ and those students who live in poverty. We can and must do better for those students who every good teacher and administrator worries about because they see them in the hallways and classrooms and know that they need more from their districts.

But doing better will require stronger resources and practices.

I want to make sure that every child in this state has access to the same variety of books and level of information as any other, regardless of where they live. Kentucky is fortunate to have among the most robust and well-funded school libraries in the country. According to the School Library Investigation, we ranked 9th in the nation in the librarian-to-student ratio during the 2018-2019 school year, as well as strong laws requiring certified librarians and high-quality library media programs. These statistics and protections attest to Kentucky’s commitment to libraries and are something of which we should be proud.

However, the strength of our libraries isn’t static. That librarian-to-student ratio has dropped in the past decade as we lost nearly 1 in 10 librarian positions. Students should have access to quality materials and they need access to professionals who can help them sort out information in a complex world.

Most importantly, students need access to books that reflect their and others’ experiences, regardless of that student’s race, religion, geographical location, culture, political persuasion, gender expression or orientation. Anything less is a disservice to the holistic part of who they are.

Those identities, those parts of themselves that help students navigate and feel connected to the world, also need protection from harm, as students simply can’t separate parts of themselves at the schoolhouse gate.

The Kentucky Student Voice Team – which recorded data from 10,725 students across the Commonwealth in 2021 – found that the majority of students, regardless of their racial identity, believe that racism is a problem in their schools. The racism is disturbing and we have an obligation to address it, given that the students think we are failing to do so. A majority of those same respondents said their teachers rarely or never talk about issues of race in the classroom, and more surprisingly, nearly half said that they spend more time talking with other students about race outside of the classroom than inside of it.

As high school senior and Kentucky Student Voice Team survey research lead Pragya Upreti puts it, we know students are “thinking about, debating about and wrestling with” these issues. The question is if we are willing to think about and wrestle with these issues alongside them or leave them to figure it out alone.

Similar issues exist for LGBTQ students. While there is little Kentucky-specific data, nationally, according to the 2019 GLSEN School Climate Survey, 59% of LBGTQ-identified students feel unsafe in their school building and 69% report being verbally harassed. A full 95% report hearing anti-LGBTQ slurs daily and these students are 400% more likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGBTQ peers.

These numbers are startling, but from my perspective, they are a jumping-off point and a call for action. Kentucky has the resources available to change these statistics, among which are the awesome and caring teachers and administrators beside whom I am proud to work.

We can start with getting better data, with facing the issues our students face head-on.

We can proceed with better resources and training for staff in how to best reach, communicate with and help all our students, including using resources already known to help, such as:

  • Diverse books in the school libraries;
  • Inclusion clubs at high schools;
  • Diversity in the curriculum;
  • Strong, enforced policies against harassment; and
  • The intentional use and inclusion of language that makes every student know, unequivocally, their worth, and that they are loved.

I believe this word is key: love. Teachers become teachers because of love: love for their subject matter, love for education, love for learning, love for their communities, and, ultimately, love for their students.

These are difficult times, with a pandemic still in force and a country increasingly polarized, but I believe firmly that our love is the shared belief that binds every teacher to the same path in public education, and this love can be perfectly shown in a paradigm that sees our students in full, human terms and asks them what they want and need.

Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass envisions a new approach to education in Kentucky that “brings together voices and participants who have not always been at the table when decisions are made.”– I think that hearing those voices of our students, and being willing to take the risks necessary to make changes based upon what they say, is the way we marry that love and our primary goal to help students become what they dream to be.

Willie Carver, a high school and dual credit French and English teacher at Montgomery County High School, is the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. He holds a bachelor’s and a double-endorsed master’s from Morehead State University and earned a Rank 1 with studies in French Linguistics at the University of Georgia. Carver sponsors a Gay-Straight Alliance, among other clubs, and believes that ordinary students can change the world in extraordinary ways.