Voice Recognition

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In Conversation With ... Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr.

Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr.

Kentucky School Advocate
January 2022

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. was named the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year in September. Carver, who teaches French and dual-credit English at Montgomery County High School, talks about what inspired him to become a teacher and the work his students have done to help make their school more inclusive.

Q. Why did you want to be a teacher?  

I was always happiest and most alive when I was in school. We were very poor and school was a safe place where I felt powerful and noticed. My grade school teachers went out of their way to take care of me. Little things, like telling me that a paragraph I’d written was really good. It was validation I didn’t get elsewhere. So I thought if I love school this much, I can just always be in it. And I want to make other people feel seen and as powerful as school has made me feel.

Q. You grew up in Floyd County, but you've lived in France, Georgia and Vermont. Why did you want to come home and teach in eastern Kentucky?  

The beauty of going elsewhere is it gives you the space to see what was already there that you couldn’t see before. Living abroad gave me a better sense for how wonderful things were back home. When we moved to Vermont we were heartsick because there had been issues for LGBT people in Kentucky. An administrator had told me that I had to be in the closet or I would not make it through the year. I love Vermont, but I learned that people there have stereotypes about people in the South. I don’t think there’s a perfect place full of perfect people anywhere. So when we moved back to Mount Sterling, I decided to assume everyone loves me. I will use this perspective to have a happier life.

Q. That’s a positive approach and it seems it could change people around you.

I hope so. Also, I know what students in eastern Kentucky are capable of and I know that they don’t get that message. I feel most at home telling them they’re capable of doing anything they want.

Q. Do you feel Kentucky still lags on LGBT issues?

I do. It’s grown tremendously, more so because of students than adults. Students demand justice and representation. For example, I was always terrified that students would ask me to head a gay-straight alliance. I am not closeted; but I still thought, it could be career-risking in this county. But I also knew if a student asked, I was going to do it. Eventually, students did want to create a group focused on the variety of perspectives in the school that aren’t given a voice. We’ve been an openly LGBT affirming group, which I don’t think would’ve happened 10 years ago.

Q. Your role as a teacher does require walking a fine line.

We have to acknowledge what is out there and also let students know their rights. I tell them that people might mistreat you or hold this against you and that’s on them and not you, but I need to let you know this exists. That’s tricky because I’m employed by the district and it might not be receptive to their ideas. But I think about how little I tried to make things better my first 10 years out of high school, and I don’t want these students to leave school with that perspective.

Q. When you went to France to teach English, your parents reminded you that they wouldn’t be able to come help if you needed it. Were you nervous about going abroad? What did it teach you?

I was nervous and excited. I had no idea what I was doing. It didn’t even occur to me to have a plan of where to sleep the night I arrived. I show up thinking I’ll find a hotel, but the village was so small that there was no hotel. I learned to take risks and that I am capable of pretty much anything I put my mind to. As a teacher, this experience helps me let students know there really aren’t limitations except for the ones we put on ourselves – with that I don’t mean to underplay what society can sometimes do to us. But our perception of reality is not reality. We can shift that perception and our power is our ability to shift.

Q. When you were teaching at the college level, you realized you wanted to teach K-12. What drew you to that?  A. In my graduate program, I would have conversations with professors or classmates and realize, my sister is smarter than anyone in this room, but the likelihood that she would end up in the room was pretty small. I realized I was not going to put people like my sister in rooms like that by being there, at the university. I needed to be somewhere where I can direct those people.

Q. Can tell me about Happy Club, which you helped students at Montgomery County create?  

Five or six years ago, a couple of students came to my office and said we should start a group that tries to make people happy. Not political or big picture systemic issues. So, the club might concentrate for a week on giving attention to people who don’t get attention. Or dance in the lunchroom, give out cookies at lunch, write letters to teachers.

Q. The Happy Club couldn’t be active during the pandemic, and now it has merged with Open Light, the LGBT-focused group you mentioned earlier.

Yes, Open Light describes itself as a group of diverse voices focusing on education and community building related to groups, big and small, LGBT and others, to strengthen our school and community. They’ll have TED Talk-like presentations, where one student puts together a lesson on a topic, like how feminism has affected the LGBT movement. After the group listened to Eric Marcus’s podcasts – he’s a leading LGBT historian – they said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if he came to Montgomery County?’ I said, ‘Let’s try it.’ They invited him and he agreed to come but had to cancel because of the pandemic. They’ve done presentations to the English department asking for teachers to commit to diverse literature, specifically people of color and LGBT, and they got 100 percent commitment. They wanted to research school climate and created a survey about LGBT issues in school and got 200 responses before administration banned it. They hope to use those results to address the site-based council and board of education about where we are as a school.

Q. How did you react when you got the news about your award?

I was on vacation with my husband and a friend when I got an email saying that I was the Valvoline 2022 top 20 something. My friend said it sounded like a scam so I deleted it. A couple days later, I got another email and looked up the person and realized it had something to do with Teacher of the Year.

Q. How did your students react?

My room was filled with balloons, streamers and posters. Of course, the students use it against me, which I applaud. I'll say, ‘I won’t be here tomorrow because I have a doctor’s appointment,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, Teacher of the Year doesn’t even bother coming to school.’

Q. You’ll take a sabbatical starting in January and work in the Kentucky Department of Education. What will you do?

I’m not entirely sure yet. I’m interested in the issue of self-perception. I grew up in Appalachia, gay and feminine, and school was supposed to be the thing that saves us – from poverty, from difficulties – but often school can become a hindrance in terms of your identity. I think about what are we doing in the classroom that might be causing students to shift in who they think they are and how can we stop that? I’m also interested in the issue of censorship, of students not getting access to books that reflect who they are. If I’m a student of color and feel like I’m not reflected in the classroom, I’m subconsciously getting the message that school does not equal me. Maybe we could have a Kentucky digital library that would afford access to books to students no matter where they were.  

Q. How can local school board members best support teachers in their districts?

It is a difficult role to have right now, so I sympathize. We always say the best way to support us is to listen, but I think we need to create a way to listen. Maybe a quick survey that goes out once a month that asks “How are we doing?” to provide some active feedback. And, I’m not saying anything that school board members don’t already know, but it is important to know that the voices yelling from the cheap seats don’t represent everybody. Sometimes there are knee-jerk reactions to placate some of the least savory elements in our communities. If we acknowledge there are going to be racist and homophobic people in the community, we also have to ask, how do we respond when they make requests?

Top photo: Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr., an English and French teacher at Montgomery High School, was named the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year on Sept. 9. Carver says the kindness he learned from the teachers who helped him as a child led him to instill that same level of humanity in his classroom. (Provided by KDE)

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