Leading a humanitarian relief expedition in the jungles of Panama planted a seed for US Teacher of the Year Chauncey Veatch. Between 1993 and 1995, the ex-army colonel headed a cadre of between 60 and 600 aid workers in the steamy jungles of Central America. The team provided education, health care, sanitation, road repair and rudimentary housing for the indigenous people, most of whom lived rough under the rainforest canopy.
"I thought, 'I want to go back to my country and do something of value, too.' That's when teaching occurred to me," recalls Mr Veatch, 54, who was presented with the prestigious award by President Bush at a recent White House reception.
Swapping his military fatigues for civvies at the end of the mission, Mr Veatch brought the curtain down on a 22-year globe-trotting military career spanning tours of duty in Spain, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Paraguay and Peru. Returning home to southern California armed with a bachelor's degree in history and a doctorate in law, he decided to do something about that nagging interest in teaching. Within days, he had lined up an interview for a supply teaching post with his local education authority in Thermal, California.
Thermal is two and a half hours east of Los Angeles, but a world away in atmosphere. The sparsely populated area, mainly home to Mexican migrant workers who pick crops in California's fertile agricultural belts, was a natural choice for Mr Veatch, who is fluent in Spanish.
Six days after being interviewed in the understaffed school district, he found himself facing a class of 13-year-olds at John Kelley school. Thrown in at the deep end without formal training, he racked his brains for a way to get through to the Hispanic pupils. His approach set the tone for the deeply personal approach to teaching that set him on the fast-track to becoming the newest teacher ever to receive the 50-year-old teaching accolade.
"Hispanic students have rich names - Julio Cesar, or Julius Caesar; Marco Antonio, or Mark Anthony; Elaine, or Helen of Troy," Mr Veatch explains. To bring learning alive for students whose tough family lives on itinerant trailer parks provide little contact with books, he began spinning out lessons from the historical antecedents of their names. David Long, superintendent of Riverside County office of education, who has sat in on Mr Veatch's classes, says the effect is mesmerising. "He makes the classroom come alive for the students. It took my breath away and moved me to tears."
In a short time, Mr Veatch produced impressive results with pupils who had little or no English. He moved in 1998 to Coachella Valley high school, also in Thermal, where he teaches social studies. Half of his 34 15-year-old pupils achieved above-average grades in their coursework this year; when they joined his class as 13-year-olds, all but three had a learning age below eight. One pupil recently won a scholarship to Stanford University, having arrived as a 13-year-old who spoke no English. Getting results entails dealing with extended classroom absences of many students, who have to fit in with their parents' work schedules. Mr Veatch arranges lessons around travelling commitments and designs coursework for the road.
But his commitment doesn't end at the school gates. Mr Veatch immerses himself in the life of the community, attending after-school baseball games, helping administer inoculations at migrant encampments and preparing pupils' relatives for the citizenship tests required to acquire a US passport. In the holidays, there's no let-up. He runs summer schools for pupils who need to catch up or want accelerated learning, and he has taken students on tours of the missions built by the Spanish settlers of California. Such dedication evokes a rare affection among Mr Veatch's pupils, says Foch Pensis, superintendent of the Coachella Valley school district. "They use words such as 'love' and 'caring' - for young Hispanic males this is not common terminology."
Given a year off to serve as a roving ambassador for the teaching profession, Mr Veatch hopes to encourage others to consider a second career in teaching. He says: "Education is the only weapon we have in a democracy for tolerance, understanding and fairness."
The first rays of sun are just spilling over the flat, parched horizon of the Palm Desert when Chauncey Veatch leaves his two-bedroom duplex in Thermal for Coachella Valley high school. He's in the classroom by 6.30am, and the pupils arrive for their first class about 40 minutes later. Class sizes are capped at 39 in California. Start times vary depending on the shifting bus timetable as the 3,000-strong secondary school has a 50-mile catchment area. The final bell rings at 2.30pm, but Mr Veatch stays until 5pm, giving further instruction, and counselling students.
As a new teacher, Mr Veatch was mentored by an experienced colleague. Reflecting the teacher shortage, he was recruited without formal training, gaining his diploma three years into his teaching career through evening and weekend classes at nearby Chapman University.
The starting salary for teachers in California is around $33,000 (pound;21,747). Renting a one-bedroom apartment in the area costs up to $850 (pound;560) a month. Holidays are generous - one week in winter, a week at Easter and almost three months in summer - but Mr Veatch calculates that his after-school schedule gives him just two weekends off a year.