MT. STERLING, Ky. — Kentucky’s 2022 Teacher of the Year is leaving the classroom, saying anti-Gay discrimination is preventing him and other LGBTQ teachers from making a difference in their students’ lives.
Willie Carver Jr., who taught Kindergarten through 12 students for 17 years, said he has accepted a position at the University of Kentucky as a student advisor for the Gatton College of Business and Economics.
“I just thought going back [to the classroom] is going to result in so much personal pain,” Carver told Spectrum News 1. “Until the last couple of years, it has gotten increasingly better and [now] it’s gotten so much worse.”
Carver, who is openly gay, recently told a Congressional subcommittee he and other LGBTQ teachers face unrelenting discrimination and censorship in the classroom.
“I am made invisible,” Carver told lawmakers. “I am from Mount Sterling, Kentucky and met the president of the United States. My school didn’t even mention it in an email.”
He warned lawmakers that anti-LGBTQ policies being implemented in certain states would further exacerbate the nationwide teacher shortage.
“I feel I’m abandoning [the students], but I’m tired. I’ve fought for so long for kids to feel human, to be safe, to have hope. I don’t know how much longer I can do it,” Carver told lawmakers as he asked them to pass the Equality Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The Equality Act would prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in education, employment, housing and other areas of life, while the Safe Schools Improvement Act aims to prevent bullying and harassment of students.
“We are not asking for special treatment. We’re asking for fundamental human decency, dignity, freedom from fear and the same opportunity to thrive as everyone else,” he said.
Carver said being Teacher of the Year gave him a platform to impact positive change. He was named Kentucky’s 2022 Teacher of the Year in September for his dedication to students at Montgomery County High School, where he taught English and French. He also connected with his students by supporting Happy Club, a club aimed at making school a better place, and Open Light, a student-led LGBTQ affirming group.
As a teacher, Carver has always aimed to make a difference in his students’ lives—just as his own teachers inspired him. A native of rural Floyd County in Appalachia, Carver grew up in poverty with limited access to basic needs. He remembers school as a “warm and welcoming place” where teachers made him feel valued, seen and heard. One teacher even gave him shoes when he didn’t have any.
“I could cite a million stories of teachers who saw me for who I was, and knew that who I was was already worthy, and who tried to instill that message,” said Carver. “I think as a teacher now, all I want us to do the same thing. That is particularly important for LGBTQ students. It’s also very important for Appalachian students who, to this day, do not feel that they deserve to be in certain places.”
He believes his efforts to support students are being thwarted by anti-Gay culture and policies, so he’s seeking a different career where he hopes he can continue to have a positive impact on the next generation.
“Nearly all of my life as a professional has been spent thinking about all of the people who are going to be offended and so I see myself as offensive,” said Carver. “If you’re going to be the gay teacher, then you have to be aware of the fact that there’s going to be the complaint — you’re reading this, you’re saying this, you’re doing this — and be willing to insist that you’re correct for doing that.”
Carver said leaving his students was not an easy decision; he’s inspired by them and will continue to fight and advocate for them. He plans to continue using his platform to make schools a more equitable place for all students and teachers, regardless of their background or identity.
“I became a teacher to try to make sure that every student felt that who they were walking into the room was as good as anyone else and as deserving as anyone else,“ Carver said. “I hope whatever I do for the rest of my life, whether it’s teaching or something else, continues that path.”