June 8, 2022 8:03 AM EDT

Akash Patel, a nationally-recognized middle school teacher in Texas, has brought his students to over 150 countries around the globe—all without boarding a single airplane. Patel is a polyglot who teaches Spanish at Dallas ISD’s Ignite Middle School, a Title 1 school that serves economically disadvantaged students—many of whom have never traveled outside the U.S.

He’s traveled to over 60 countries, so he has first-hand knowledge of the potency of immersive language learning. That’s why he uses the power of the internet to bring foreign language speakers from around the world inside the four walls of his classroom. Via his Happy World Foundation, Patel connects students across the country with a network of over 1,200 international native foreign language speakers via video calls, some from countries even he has yet to visit.

“They may not be able to afford a trip to Italy,” Patel says, “but through the internet that we have in the public school system, we’re able to talk to people in Italy instantly.”

Akash Patel's innovative foreign language teaching approach brings global experiences into his classroom.
Courtesy Photo

Patel grew up in India, where he lived for 18 years, before coming to the U.S. to pursue a degree in nuclear engineering. He discovered a passion for communication and travel, however, and decided to give up a prestigious scholarship to pursue a career in teaching.

Though he initially gravitated toward math instruction, language would ultimately become his focus. “There’s incredible power in what language can do for a human. Through language and dialogue we dispel stereotypes and cultivate collaboration,” he says.

The power of community was evident even in Patel’s darkest days. After his twin brother, Anand “Happy” Patel, died tragically in a plane crash in 2018, his students and their families collectively raised over $1,500 for their teacher in response. Grateful, but reluctant to accept their donation personally, Patel put the money toward humanitarian efforts led by his students, including the distribution of hundreds of meals to homeless people in Dallas.

The students’ generosity inspired him to create The Happy World Foundation (HWF), a global education nonprofit, in honor of his late brother. The program includes a Global Connect database, which enables teachers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico to connect with volunteers from around the world to engage in educational conversations with their students. Last year alone, HWF facilitated over 30,000 calls.

“I’m passionately advocating for expanding access for all teachers,” says Patel, “so that they and their scholars have the same access to these global experiences no matter what ZIP code they’re in.”

One of Patel’s seventh graders, Gabriel Fernandez, is wrapping up his first year in Spanish. “Normal tests and packets can be boring,” he admits, “but Mr. Patel’s lessons and Zoom calls make it funner to actually learn.” Gabriel adds that he feels more confident in his speaking abilities and plans on continuing his Spanish studies moving forward.

Parents are also noticing a difference in their children. “There are very few teachers that are able to connect with the students the way that Mr. Patel does,” says Daniel Fernandez, Gabriel’s father. “Not everybody learns the same way, so his interactive lesson plans are able to reach students where they are.”

After the pandemic drove schools online, the days of teachers fearing they’re not tech-savvy are over, Patel says. He’s determined to inspire other foreign language educators to join his innovative teaching approach that he believes any teacher can adapt to their own classroom.

“I saw the gap and did something about it,” says Patel. “When you see gaps, you should go fill that gap and then don’t just stop there. Go and fill the next one.”

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Write to Mariah Espada at mariah.espada@time.com.

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