A Dallas teacher is a finalist in a $1 million Global Teacher Prize. Out of 30,000 applicants from 173 countries, Thomas J. Rusk Middle School teacher Akash Patel made the list of the 50 best. According to Bill Gates via a Twitter video about the award, “Finalists were selected based on a rigorous set of criteria, including their proven effectiveness in inspiring students and helping them learn. The winner will be announced in Dubai on March 18th.
NBC 5’s Kristin Dickerson attended one of Mr. Patel’s morning classes in Dallas to learn how his global experience is shaping his young students.
“Now! Other disadvantages?” asks teacher Akash Patel to a room of students.
Inside the classroom of 7th and 8th graders are global citizens in training.
“’Mas rapido,’ means what?” Patel asks.
He’s a Spanish teacher who didn’t grow up speaking the language.
“My first language is Gujarati, Hindi, and Marathi because my parents speak three languages between them,” Patel said.
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Patel is from Western India, but he’s a product of the world.
“I’ve been to a lot–South America, all of Central America,” said Patel while pointing out his travels on a map.
He’s visited 35 countries, “and the only continent I’m missing right now is Africa and Antarctica,” Patel said.
Along the way, he’s learned six languages. Spanish came five years ago while rescuing sea turtles in Costa Rica.
“So it was a do-or-die situation where I was a person who didn’t speak a word of Spanish, put into a small town conserving sea turtles, and everybody spoke Spanish. So I had to get it!” Patel said.
He already loved the culture and its similarities to his Indian culture, so he spent time in Central America perfecting the language, and realized he wanted to take his passion one step further.
“And I was like, ‘I want to be a teacher,’ I think, ‘if I learned it I can teach others to learn it too.’” Patel said.
Now a second-year Spanish teacher, he’s sharing his worldly perspective by bringing the world into his classroom.
“Buenos dias!” Patel said to a group of college students in Colombia joining his classroom via Skype.
This virtual discussion provided an opportunity for his students to practice Spanish, while subtly expanding their perspectives.
“The other idea is for them to dispel stereotypes. How important is it for children to be able to see that we are all the same despite our differences—no matter where we come from—whether it’s Colombia, Equatorial Guinea, or Venezuela, we all have the same aspirations for our families and regardless of who we are or where we come from we’re all the same,” Patel said.
He wants to use his life experience to help grow global tolerance, peace and understanding.
One example, is the material that his students use to write.
“They write on paper, which is made out of elephant poo called, ‘PoopooPaper.’ One elephant gives you about 200 sheets of paper every day, doesn’t stink and it doesn’t smell,” Patel said.
Another example came during a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of technology (while speaking in Spanish and English with his students). Patel shared, “Steve Jobs would travel a lot to India—Mr. Patel’s Country. He used to go there on spiritual visits.”
They are both examples of subtle lessons that come directly from his unique life experience.
Patel is hoping to use his story to inspire his classroom by following the message of a favorite quote: “I learned to give, not because I have plenty, but because I know what it feels like to have nothing,” Patel said. “And that’s what I want to emphasize and teach to these children too—you don’t have to be rich to make a difference in someone’s life. We can all make a difference.”
He’s sharing a love for service and life-long learning while imparting a competitive edge among his students.
“‘Mr. Patel, you speak six languages,’” Patel said while recalling a conversation with one of his students, “‘and I want to speak seven and I’m going to be trolling you in 10 years,’ Yes! That’s the way, that’s what I want out of this classroom.”