Dallas teacher to lead international foreign language education group

Organization leaders sought Akash Patel, a middle school Spanish teacher, for his experience as an immigrant teacher and his efforts to connect Dallas students with people across the world.

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated that Patel spoke of DISD dual language programs when he spoke of DISD and other area districts’ programs. It also should have said children in these programs are graduating with a “global seal of biliteracy,” not literacy.

Middle school teacher Akash Patel learned early on in his career that students would get excited when he described his travels, such as the times he encountered elephants or sea turtles.

He found that sharing his passion for traveling broadened students’ worldviews.

Now, after working to connect his classroom with those from other countries, he is getting the opportunity to increase his reach beyond Ignite Middle School.

This month the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages — an international organization for educators — elected Patel as its president.

“What I do in Dallas ISD with my kids could be replicated in thousands of classrooms,” Patel said. “With ACTFL and their powerful network of hundreds of thousands of teachers, I could be in so many more places.”

But Patel didn’t start in education. He came to the United States in 2009 with his twin brother on a scholarship to study nuclear engineering at Iowa State University.

“The stereotype for folks like me who are from India is you can either be an engineer or a lawyer or doctor or a disgrace to the family,” he said.

But neither sibling felt that it was their calling. So the two bought an SUV off of Craigslist, drove south to Oklahoma, and chose what they wanted to study. Patel initially wasn’t sure what area he wanted to transition to. Still, after graduating from an area community college with an associate degree in arts, he was recruited by a liberal arts college that was looking for “people of color to become teachers.”

Patel earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. He began teaching in small, rural communities. That’s where his passion for global citizenship education — a concept that aims to promote tolerance through teaching students about different countries and cultures — was ignited, Patel said.

Patel has traveled to more than 55 countries, been to every continent except for Antarctica, and is fluent in six languages, including Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Hindi.

He started inviting his own friends from different countries to join a video call with his class. Using maps and clues, students would ask questions to figure out where the person lives.

After his twin brother died in a plane crash in 2018, Patel created the Happy World Foundation, a global education nonprofit, to honor his memory. Today, the foundation helps teachers in the United States connect their classrooms with about 1,200 volunteers from more than 150 countries for video meetups.

Amy Anderton, DISD’s world languages director, quickly noticed that Patel was a natural leader and someone “who could pull out the best of people” when he came to the district in 2017. His impact stretches well beyond his classroom to other teachers and students in the district, to those across Texas and the country itself, she said.

“The overwhelming majority of his kids have never left (the state),” Anderton said. “He’s really taught our kids that they can be influential throughout the world … that they can make a difference and they can make an impact in other kids’ lives, other people’s lives around the world.”

Patel’s charismatic personality caught the eye of ACTFL leaders who would invite him to speak about his work at conventions and participate in several national committees.

He “personifies joy and optimism, and he has a very infectious spirit that I think, frankly, we need a lot more of nowadays,” ACTFL executive director Howie Berman said.

Patel’s life experience as an innovator and an immigrant teacher infused with his positivity is imperative to boost teacher morale, Berman said. His new position comes at a time when educators are particularly stressed from the added challenges of the pandemic.

“He’s just going to really inspire a lot of people and … we really need it the most because teachers are really looking for inspiration,” he said.

As president of ACTFL, Patel wants to focus on expanding the reach of global citizenship education.

“I can speak, read and write six languages,” he said. “When I came to the States I was like, ‘Wow, people can barely speak one here. Why can’t we change this?’ ”

The change has to begin with innovative school districts. He noted that DISD and other area districts have dual-language programs where children are graduating with a “global seal of biliteracy” in either Spanish, French or Chinese and English. But state legislatures also need to allocate more money to schools for these kinds of programs.

This will help students not only become more competitive when searching for jobs but also in developing empathy and eliminating prejudice, he said.

Patel also wants to work on the recruitment and retention of foreign language educators in a time when Texas and the country are already experiencing teacher shortages.

His students, however, are always his priority.

“They know my personal life. They know how I have been through things that somebody can hardly imagine going through,” he said. “These kids were with me during my hard times … my happy times, and Dallas will always be family for me.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.