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Education

Beloved Dallas Spanish teacher elected as president of prestigious national language organization

A man sits on a school classroom chair. Over his light green colored shirt he wears a red-knit poncho and on his head a multi-color woolen knit cap.
Bill Zeeble
/
KERA News
Akash Patel teaches Spanish at Dallas ISD's Ignite Middle School. He's president-elect of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Akash Patel will helm the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Patel’s twin brother died in a plane crash in 2018, and is the inspiration for a nonprofit that connects students, educators and global citizens.

A Spanish teacher at Dallas ISD’s Ignite Middle School was elected as the next president of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. He will assume the role in 2023.

The organization has a membership of more than 13,000 and presidents serve 3-year terms.

It’s the latest accomplishment among many for Akash Patel, a 30-year-old, multi-lingual instructor who grew up around vineyards in the city of Nashik, in western India.

At age 18, Patel and his twin brother headed to Iowa State University on scholarships.

Akash planned to study nuclear engineering, “because that’s the stereotype for folks like me who are from India. You can either be an engineer, a lawyer or a doctor, or, quite frankly, a disgrace to the family. My twin and I both knew that that was not our calling".

Setting their own course

Their calling was to do the American thing, and —like Huckleberry Finn — light out for the territory. Leaving Iowa State and their scholarships behind, the twins bought a used vehicle on Craigslist, and drove to Oklahoma City.

They enrolled in the local community college. Akash got an associate’s degree in liberal studies and was recruited by the small University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma “in the middle of nowhere, Chickasha,” to become a teacher.

“They're like, Mr. Patel, you'll be the perfect fit. We need more diverse teachers in rural communities of Oklahoma. Surprisingly, I started student teaching in small towns like Rush Springs and Ninnekah, where people had never seen someone like me who spoke six languages and had traveled to over 50 countries.

"So I saw that spark in the eyes of the kids when I shared with them my stories of working with elephants or with sea turtles or my travel experiences around the globe. And the kids were moved. They were like, ‘Wow, who is our teacher? Where is he from?’” Patel recalled.

Patel took their curiosity, the power of stories as well as his ability to tell them and pumped up student interest in different cultures and countries where people also spoke Spanish. At the same time, he realized it helped increase empathy and dispel stereotypes, including his own.

“Teaching in these small, rural communities gave me perspective," said Patel. "I had stereotypes of Oklahomans like, you know, when I first came to Oklahoma, I thought outside my airplane window I would see cowboys and teepees. But to my surprise, I didn't see any."

Patel said that showed him we all have stereotypes.

"Folks have stereotypes of me. I had stereotypes of Oklahomans, but that's when I realized I had a gift, and I saw a gap in global education. We can dispel these stereotypes through conversations, through dialogs."

Forging connections

Patel came up with an idea that would eventually become the non-profit he founded, The Happy World Foundation. He named the foundation for his twin brother, Anand Happy Patel, who died in a plane crash. Patel asked friends he’d made in his world travels and online communities to meet his students in class —all via the internet.

“I started inviting hundreds of my friends from Germany, from Ghana, from India, from Antarctica, to video-call my students in these rural communities," said Patel.

His students would stand up with a map and ask questions of Patel's friends and locate the visitor's home country.

“That's where my idea for a nonprofit was born," said Patel. "I created a database, which today is called the Global Connect database.

Today, The Happy World Foundation has 1,200 volunteers from over 150 countries and their video call classroom is in all 50 states of the United States for free.

Patel hopes the non-profit and his infectiously positive outlook on the world will inspire fellow language teachers to connect with their own students in increasingly creative ways, just as his global video-visitors program inspired his students.

When Patel learned his brother had died, his students quickly rallied around him and his family.

“In the three or four weeks that I was gone from teaching, my students, from a turn-around campus in Dallas, raised over $1,500 for my family for the funeral," he said. "We refused to accept it. When we gave that money back, the students allocated those funds to what's now called the Happy Meals for the Homeless program that since 2018 has donated over 30,000 meals for the homeless.”

Coming back from pandemic-era learning loss

Patel says as the incoming president of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), he’s ready to help foreign language teachers tackle the task of making up pandemic-created academic losses, and using instructors’ newfound knowledge of teach-at-home tools like Zoom or Teams, all in an effort to shrink the globe just a little more.