42 years at the head of the class in Camas

Forty of retiring educator’s former students have followed her into teaching

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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More than four decades ago, Gail Welsh vowed to herself she would quit teaching the day she woke up and didn’t enjoy it anymore. There was no point putting on an act. Her students would see through it, she thought.

Over the years, Welsh never had to front. Her iconic persona was always genuine, those who know her said.

Her mile-a-minute speech never slowed. Her inventive teaching methods never failed to captivate. Her trademark high heels never went out of style. And her love of teaching, regardless of the subject, burned as brightly her last day as it did her first.

Welsh retired Wednesday after a 42-year career teaching middle school students in the Camas School District. She started her career at the now defunct James David Zellerbach Middle School and finished it at Skyridge Middle School.

“I’ve actually had the privilege to be a teacher my entire life,” Welsh, 63, said. “Not many people can say that. It’s been absolutely my pleasure.”

While Welsh’s passion for teaching never waned, she felt it was time for “another chapter in my life.”

She hopes to use her diverse knowledge teaching either community college or after-school classes. She and her husband, Stephen Stipe, who live in Vancouver, also purchased a home in Phoenix.

Ironically, Welsh won’t be away from teaching for long. She plans to return to Skyridge at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year to substitute for a science teacher on maternity leave.

“She’s the type of teacher you don’t ever want to leave,” Skyridge Principal Aaron Smith said.

Welsh’s desire to teach started at an early age, she said. When she started teaching at age 21, she had no grand plans of teaching her entire career in the same district. She figured she would switch districts and subjects at some point.

Through the years, Welsh taught every subject except home economics and shop. She also ran her school’s talented and gifted program, coordinating student projects that helped the less fortunate.

Welsh relished the opportunity to teach varying subjects, she explained, because it forced her to continue learning.

Middle school students offered an intriguing challenge, too.

“They’re like wet cement,” she said. “You’re still able to work with them and mold them. You’re kind of unfolding their talents.”

Her students learned life lessons from her. In exchange, they kept her young, she said. She credited recent students for her knowledge of teen pop sensation Justin Bieber and the Xbox gaming system.

Welsh’s former students packed the Skyridge library June 16 to celebrate her contributions. Astronaut Mike Barratt, a Camas native, and Camas Mayor Pro Tem Scott Higgins were among the large contingent that attended the retirement party.

“I had no idea I had this many people in my life who I had affected,” Welsh said.

By her count, 40 of her former students became teachers — a fact in which she takes special pride.

Among that number is Tanya Bachman, an art teacher at Laurin Middle School in Battle Ground.

Welsh taught Bachman math and social studies at J.D. Zellerbach Middle School in 1979-80. Bachman also participated in Welsh’s Challenge program for gifted and talented students during her middle-school years.

“She made you believe whatever you wanted to be, you could do it,” Bachman said. “She made you feel special.”

The teacher and pupil have stayed in touch ever since. Bachman credits Welsh with supporting her through two separate bouts with breast cancer. Welsh called her to offer support and participated in cancer awareness events in Bachman’s honor.

Bachman believes Welsh would show the same compassion to any of her students.

“She’s really touched our community,” Bachman said. “She’s the epicenter of all this love and energy ... it’s pretty amazing.”

Twenty years after sitting in her eighth-grade math class, Jeanette Manwell still marvels at how Welsh pulled students in with her energy and creativity.

While teaching students fractions, she used a baby doll as a teaching tool. She flipped the baby doll and said, “Bottoms up with fractions.” Manwell laughed at the memory.

Manwell went on to become a teacher. She has taught the past nine years at Skyridge. Her friendship with Welsh goes beyond the classroom. Welsh plans to attend Manwell’s wedding later this year.

Manwell described Welsh’s retirement as a “bittersweet” event.

“She’s leaving big shoes to fill, but I think leaving gives us, as a staff, the chance to continue her legacy,” Manwell said.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517, ray.legendre@columbian.com, www.twitter.com/col_smallcities or www.facebook.com/raylegend.