Beloved local French teacher retires after 50 years in classroom

Published 2:16 am Monday, May 22, 2017

By Christian Coffman

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — After 50 years of teaching French, Jean-Claude Coullerez is retiring from the classroom after inspiring generations of local students. 

Email newsletter signup

Coullerez began teaching in 1966 in Quebec, Canada.

Growing up in a military family, Coullerez lived in various corners of the world, including Vietnam, Madagascar, Algeria and France.

“After moving so many times, I wanted to move somewhere else,” Coullerez said “I moved to Quebec, just before my son turned three and my daughter turned two.”

Coullerez taught there for many years until he heard of an opportunity in Louisiana through the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

Officials from Lafayette wanted to give children a better opportunity to learn French by hiring people from Quebec and Europe, people who have been speaking French since then they were born.

Coullerez came to Louisiana in the late 1980s and taught for five years before moving to Mississippi. He has been teaching French at Cathedral School for 21 years. He has also taught at Vidalia High School and Trinity Episcopal Day School

Coullerez said one of the best parts of teaching was meeting and teaching new and willing people.

“I enjoy being with new people, old people, I just enjoy it,” Coullerez said. “To teach is something for me. It’s to experience something we know through someone who does not know.”

The French teacher said his time teaching has been good.

“It was a good experience. If it was not I would not have taught there,” Coullerez said, laughing. “I liked to teach students who wanted to know how to speak French, to show them something that they would like to be involved in.”

Cathedral High School computer teacher Jennifer Slover remembers Coullerez from her high school days at Trinity Episcopal Day School.

“I took Spanish so I was not a student of his, but he still greeted me by name every morning,” Slover said. “He would playfully suggest that French was the better choice, and so when we saw one another I would say, ‘Hola,’ and he would point as if to correct me and say, ‘Bonjour.’”

Now that they have taught together at Cathedral, Slover said she values Coullerez’s soulful appreciation for the French language and its influence.

Cathedral junior Platini Doan said he has been close to the French teacher since middle school, and said they bonded over the language.

“I’m Vietnamese-American, and Mr. Coullerez once lived in Vietnam,” Doan said. “I’m bilingual, so learning French was not as hard for me. Mr. Coullerez’s excellent and experienced teaching ability allows for many students to learn and understand French simply.”

Doan said he wishes Coullerez could stay for another year, so he could take French III next year under the teacher.

“My farewell message to him is, ‘Adieu et merci mon professeur et mon ami,’” Doan said, which means, “Goodbye and thank you my teacher and my friend” in French.

Coullerez said he has enjoyed teaching, even on the inevitable bad days.

“It’s not always up, but I’ve always been glad to be teaching,” Coullerez said.

The sudden death of his wife in a 2000 car accident was one of the worst days in his career, Coullerez said, but it was not a disaster.

“I did survive, and moved on,” Coullerez said. “Everybody thought I was going to move back to Canada or France. But (my wife) was from Ferriday, and this was my country now. We lived in Vidalia until she died.”

Coullerez now lives in Monterey with his two dogs and said he does not plan to leave right now.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere, but it’s my own little paradise in the middle of the bayou,” Coullerez said. 

Coullerez said his youth and life as a teacher taught him patience and the ability to adapt, something that he will now take with him into retirement.

“(I was) living in different ways, always adapting,” Coullerez said. “I was not always somebody with a lot of patience, but I learned that I needed it. I learned to accept things that were not understood by others.”

Slover said the school will miss Coullerez, but she knows Coullerez will always be doing something inspiring.

“Mr. Coullerez is a wonderfully unique person with wildly diverse life experiences,” Slover said. “What retirement? I’m just waiting to see what he does next.”