BLACKSBURG, Va., April 14, 2009 – John Welch stood up to share moving words at Jocelyne Couture-Nowak's funeral, but when other attendees started donating to the scholarship fund for her daughter, he had little to offer.
“I went home and didn’t have any money in my bank account, but I felt I had to do something,” recalled the junior from Arlington, who was not in Couture-Nowak’s French class in Norris Hall on April 16, 2007, but had studied with her the year before.
Welch may have lacked cash, but he had a great idea how to honor the memory of a teacher -- become one himself. He started a group called Teach for Madame that sends Virginia Tech students to nearby elementary schools to give lessons in French language and culture.
“I didn’t really think about the fact that I had never worked with kids until the day before I went to talk with them,” said Welch, who is due to graduate in 2010 with degrees in international studies and French. “We were surrounded by 50 kids that first day. We were pretty much all nervous.”
Nervous or not, they got through that day, and many others since then. From seven students working at one elementary school in January 2008, Teach for Madame has doubled in size, expanded to serve two more elementary schools, and inspired similar programs that promote other languages.
This semester, more than twenty students volunteered for Teach for Jamie, named for Jamie Bishop, who taught German. People are working to establish a group to teach Arabic that is expected to be called Teach for Reema, in tribute to Reema Samaha, a student in Couture-Nowak’s class on April 16, 2007, who was also lost that day.
“We realized that we students have these language skills and Montgomery County Public Schools doesn’t have a language program in elementary school, but that age is when learning language can be most beneficial,” said Teach for Jamie leader Betsy Potter, a Richmond native who will graduate in May with degrees in international studies and German.
Providing a foreign language experience to young children, she said, “is sort of a way that we can give back to Montgomery County and say ‘thanks for housing us.’ And we want to pass our skills on to the next generation.”
Micah Mefford is principal of Margaret Beeks Elementary in Blacksburg. Roughly 10 percent of his students participate in Teach for Jamie’s afterschool program.
“Parents are glad for their children to have an opportunity to be exposed to another culture and to learn another language, even if it’s just the basics,” Mefford said.
Tragedy was the inspiration for the Teach for Madame and Teach for Jamie organizations, but at this point students who were not even enrolled two years ago are joining. Welch and Potter welcome that as a sign the organizations will remain vital after their initial volunteers graduate.
Associate Professor Richard Shryock, who chairs the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, says he believes the popularity of the programs is related to fact that “many of our students of languages share the same enthusiasm and passion that both Jocelyne and Jamie had. These programs offer an excellent means for them to do something with that interest, and to do so in a very meaningful fashion.”