After 10 years of teaching Spanish to high school and middle school students, Becky Searls had pretty much honed her classroom lesson plans to a science.

But when she took a four-week trip to Ecuador and Peru this summer to learn about cultures and languages in the Andes Mountain region, she realized her standard practices might not be the most effective way to reach her sixth- and seventh-grade students at Jones Middle School.

"The longer you're in any profession, the better you get at it, the more difficult it is to remember how to connect with and help new people," Searls said. "It's easy to forget it's challenging and complex.

"The only way to really be reminded of that is to put yourself in those situations."

The South American trip, which Searls took as part of a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad program focused on humanities, social sciences and languages, did just that.

As part of the trip, Searls was challenged to learn local dialects of Kichwa in Ecuador and Quechua in Peru that effectively put her back in a student's seat, struggling to comprehend and retain a completely foreign language.

"It's an idea that perhaps when students are stressed out, a filter rises and blocks the acquisition of information," Searls said. "Having experienced it myself again, I remembered that is a real thing.

"For me, it emphasized the importance of constant repetition in different ways and contexts. I'm more flexible now because for kids, maybe 'best' isn't more efficient. Maybe 'best' is seeing more things and making more connections to what they're learning."

Searls said she'll be mindful of those lessons when she returns to her classroom this school year.

In addition to the importance of repetition in teaching Spanish, she said she was reminded that providing comfort through encouragement can be a powerful tactic in removing learning blocks.

She'll also use practices she observed in each of the 13 countries she visited over the past 13 months as she took a self-designed travel sabbatical.

From Europe to South America, Searls said, she met teachers who are finding and developing strategies for engaging and teaching students.

"It is no surprise that Becky was selected among this talented group of teachers for this program," Upper Arlington Associate Superintendent Dr. Kathy Jenney said. "We're so lucky to have teachers in our district who go above and beyond to bring these extraordinary perspectives into our classrooms."

Searls said those lessons were valuable, in part, because she's constantly seeking growth as an educator, but also because there are new ways to personalize and reinforce education, thanks to students' use of computer tablets and programs in classrooms.

"Each student has a device that allows them to connect to a broader world outside the classroom," Searls said. "They can gain cultural sensitivity by learning about different events throughout the year.

"We're building global competence."

Jones Principal Jason Fine agreed and lauded Searls for her sabbatical and for being selected to participate in the Fulbright-Hays program. He said it should help broaden learning at his building this school year.

"She is so passionate about learning and that comes through in everything she does in the classroom," Fine said. "I have no doubt that her students, her colleagues and the community will be impacted by everything Becky has learned through this incredible program."