Kirsten Kapteyn, the widow of James Cornelius Kapteyn, talks about the reasons why Welch was selected for the honor.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The 2018 winner of the James Cornelius Kapteyn Prize for excellence in teaching was hailed Sunday as an educator who combines an encyclopedic knowledge of the material, masterful comic timing and care and concern for the students who have walked into his classroom at Mount Greylock Regional School for more than two decades.
"Through all that I've learned about [Jeffrey Welch], what emerges clearly for me as Jeff's most important quality is his deep well of empathy," Kirsten Kapteyn, widow of James Kapteyn, said in presenting the award to the Mount Greylock social studies teacher. "Empathy that's at the heart of understanding human history, of acting and directing and appreciating theater and of effective teaching.
"The development of empathy in young people is critical, particularly in this violent and polarized time in our country. Lack of empathy breeds hatred and conflict. Jamie Kapteyn possessed the same quality of empathy that Jeff embodies. Empathy was arguably the quality that made Jamie so universally liked and admired and so successful as a teacher and mentor."
Kapteyn cited Welch's role as a parent with his wife, Jennifer, to four children — three currently at Mount Greylock — as helping to inspire that empathy.
"Like Jamie did, Jeff loves children, especially teenagers," Kirsten Kapteyn continued. "He told me that he sees his students as children of other parents, approaching them as precious, good, capable, interesting, accomplished human beings with amazing potential.
"This strikes me as an empathy born of parental love."
Welch, a popular teacher and for 19 years director of Mount Greylock's spring musical, was chosen from among the pool of public and private secondary teachers in Berkshire and Franklin Counties, the New York counties of Columbia and Dutchess, and Connecticut's Litchfield County.
The 10th annual prize carries a cash award of up to $10,000 to the recipient and $2,000 to his or her school. It is named for James Kapteyn, a veteran teacher at Deerfield Academy, the Williston Northampton School and Cushing Academy, who died in 2007 at age 45.
"At private schools, they have a term for the kind of teacher Jamie was: a triple threat," said Molly Boxer, James Kapteyn's sister. "They're teachers who are involved all aspects of students' lives. What we've learned is how true that is in public schools as well.
"Jamie was exceptional, but he was not the exception. There are so many amazing teachers out there."
Seven of those exceptional teachers — six past winners plus Welch — were at Mount Greylock Sunday to hold a roundtable discussion about education and celebrate the 2018 prize winner.
Two of the former winners had short trips to make it to event: 2017 winner Linda Burlak of Williamstown's Buxton School and 2014 winner Bob Thistle of Mount Greylock.
Burlak and 2016 winner William Fenton of the Hotchkiss School shared slides from the professional enrichment they attained with the proceeds of the Kapteyn Prize: a trip to the Galapagos Islands for Burlak, a biology teacher, and an adventure filled sabbatical year that included stops in Oregon for the 2017 eclipse, China to help with the construction of an observatory and California's Palomar Observatory for Fenton, a physics and astronomy teacher.
The fact that two of the prize's 11 winners (it was shared in 2010), work at Mount Greylock was not lost on the presenters on Sunday afternoon.
Mount Greylock Principal Mary MacDonald started the award ceremony by welcoming the large crowd to the newly renovated and expanded middle-high school.
"This is the first time we've had a gathering like this in our new building, and in some ways it works as a metaphor for us and a metaphor for who Jeff is for Mount Greylock," MacDonald said. "It's a beautiful building. It's a wonderful space with flexibility and lots of stone and lots of natural light that comes in. But it's just a building. And it can't be a school without teachers.
"And it can't be the kind of school we want it to be without someone like Jeff Welch. The passion he brings to Mount Greylock, the intelligence he brings, not just to his individual classroom but to the school at large is without pale. We have almost 600 students and the students who have the opportunity to work with Jeff in the classroom but also the opportunity to work with him on the stage … come away better for that."
Several men and women who have benefited from Welch's mentoring wrote letters in support of his nomination for the Kapteyn Prize. Kirsten Kapteyn read excerpts on Sunday afternoon.
" 'He knows his history so well, he rarely has to look at any notes,' " she read. " 'His speeches are clear, to the point and engaging. He makes history come alive in his lectures, and this makes students excited to be there to learn.' "
Welch talked about the road that brought him to the teaching profession.
"While I was keeping up with my [college] coursework and doing well enough, I wasn't feeling fulfilled," said Welch, who went to college with the idea of pursuing a career in medicine. "I remember talking all of this over with an acquaintance from my dorm one afternoon. … She asked me, 'What do you want to do, then?'
"It was the first time I said out loud, 'I think I want to teach.' "
More than two decades later, Welch is still learning, he said.
"From my family, my friends, my students and my colleagues, many of whom are here assembled, and whose support and love, I treasure, the best of whatever it is I bring to the classroom, I have learned from you," Welch said. "While my vocation carries the formal title of teacher, being an effective educator has little to do with diplomas and licenses from the state Department of Education.
"Whether you brought me up, grew up with me or taught me, whether you have taught or coached my children, sat in my class, danced with me on stage, welcomed me into your family or are growing old with me, you all have taught me something about the effective education of the whole child."
Past Kapteyn Prize winners:
2017: Linda Burlak, Buxton School
2016: William Fenton, The Hotchkiss School (Conn.)
2015: Kari Giordano, Mount Everett Regional School
2014: Robert Thistle, Mount Greylock Regional High School
2013: Karen Davenport, Housatonic Valley Regional High School (Conn.)
2012: Eric G. Muller, Hawthorne Valley High School (New York)
2011: Charles Malcolm, Northfield Mount Hermon School
2010: Lisa Baldwin, Monument Mountain Regional High School and Samuel Prouty, The Hotchkiss School (Conn.)
2009: Deron Bayer, Housatonic Valley Regional High School (Conn.)
Williamstown.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.