Despite Legislative Onslaught, Kentucky Teacher of the Year Envisions Positive Future

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Joshua Brown

Brand Manager, QueerKentucky
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2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr, Photo Courtesy of EdWeek.com

The public school system in the United States has faced its fair share of challenges. From segregation based on race and gender, to low operating budgets, to the banning of books and course materials based on vague pretenses of appropriateness, the public school system has long threaded the needle between purporting to educate and actively blocking certain parts of the world from students’ view. This blockage, pushed with renewed fervor by the American Right today, is precisely what Kentucky Teacher of the Year Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. and his colleagues are fighting against.

“I’ll have students come to me and ask ‘why were we being pulled out of class and interviewed about you?'” 

“I’ve definitely seen shifts in teachers feeling confident to speak out about what they believe. It requires someone to really put themselves out there.” Teachers are already encouraged to give more of themselves than their job description demands — sometimes in service of rigorous academic reporting and sometimes in service of caring for the student beyond their retention of grade-11 vocabulary. But in addition to those oft-unrecognized demands, LGBTQ and BIPOC teachers are often solely responsible for cultivating safe and enriching spaces for similar students. This act of “putting themselves out there” is increasingly weighing on Carver and his colleagues. 

“There certainly is this feeling that you’re being watched, when forever we wanted to be seen — and those are different things,” said Carver. “I know from my personal experience. There have been situations in which a parent will complain and suggest that my curriculum is anti-conservative, etc. But I won’t be told that directly; I’ll have students come to me and ask ‘why were we being pulled out of class and interviewed about you?'” 

“In a perfect scenario, we would have trust. We would allow space for everyone without assuming that the existence of one person threatens the existence of another.” 

While these complaints come from a small minority of parents, the national conversation around the intentionally vague themes of “critical race theory” and “age-appropriate discussions” have carved out legal avenues for parents to sue the school district over contested materials. This not only bypasses teachers themselves, but creates a hostile environment wherein administrators would rather lose faculty than risk already shoestring budgets on potential litigation. Carver made a point to articulate that this is not a battle between teachers and parents, but between real fear and imagined bogeymen:

“Any parent I’ve had the honor of interacting with, they’re good, honest people who want their children to succeed. Kentucky leads the country in involving parents in the curricular system. I think if you ask those parents, “why are you upset about critical race theory,” they’d say “I don’t want someone telling my child that because they’re white they’re bad people.’ And I would say ‘yes, I agree!’ Of course no one is saying this, at all. So you’ve got the bogeyman, and the question is who’s funding the bogeyman. Fear is a protective instinct; if someone wants to say ‘hey, this person wants to harm your child, and they just so happen to be a Democrat,” that is an easy way to get someone to vote for you.”

Carver’s perspective, wrought from his 17-year career and 13 years with Montgomery County High School, is an important reminder that the broad-strokes of legislative bigotry create real challenges for those in the proverbial trenches of the culture war’s increasingly expansive battleground. But those challenges, however substantial, are not impossible to overcome. 

“The lost sleep is part of the planning process now,” said Carver. “But I know, and my colleagues know, that we are going to read LGBTQ voices, we are going to read Black voices. Let’s say we want to read [a certain novel]: we’ll prep by finding hundreds of pages of other sources; we’re going to see which other schools are reading it. We now have to think about how we protect each other, and any teacher going about it on their own is likely to be pink-slipped.” 

Carver went on to say that this rigorous vetting of materials is not altogether new, as efforts to balance the curriculum and provide a broad range of viewpoints have always been central to the planning process. “I want to read conservative voices,” said Carver. “In a perfect scenario, we would have trust. We would allow space for everyone without assuming that the existence of one person threatens the existence of another.” 

In no uncertain terms, educators like Carver are on the front lines for creating equitable, inclusive futures. While the work is exhausting, anxiety-inducing, and often thankless, in Carver’s words, “this is a calling; this is necessary if we’re going to make the world better.” 


If you would like to read more about Carver’s vision for supporting Kentucky teachers, he was recently featured in the Northern Kentucky Tribune

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