Eric Hale’s childhood was marred by abuse and poverty. His mother struggled with drug addiction, and his stepfather had schizophrenia.
“It was a tough cycle,” said Hale, 40, adding that as a child, he had little hope for his future.
After years of struggle, though, he did succeed: Hale was recently named 2021 Texas Teacher of the Year, becoming the first Black man to receive the honor out of the state’s more than 360,000 teachers.
“I’m the first to win it, but I’m not the first to deserve it,” he said.
Hale teaches first and second grade at David G. Burnet Elementary School in Dallas, where 98 percent of students live below the national poverty line.
For Hale, being an educator is about far more than teaching letters and numbers.
“I am a teacher because I’m chasing the ghost of the educator I needed as a child,” he said. “My mission is to make sure that children that are going through poverty and traumatic experiences get the hope they need.”
Hale is a first-grade teacher with Dallas ISD at David G. Burnet Elementary School. Hale has received numerous awards for his outstanding track record in the classroom, even being featured on The Kelly Clarkson Show back in February. NBC 5 previously reported on Hale’s unique teaching style, utilizing his gifts as a DJ to make learning fun, and raking up an astounding 95% passing rate for exam testing in his class over the last five years.
“We use a lot of music in my classroom…It started with me just playing music; then I said ‘man, it would be great if I could DJ,’ then I taught myself how to DJ two summers ago,” Hale said at the time. “Now I have an in-home studio where I create songs that are named after my students…If I can keep my kids energized and keep them engaged, I can teach them how to do anything.”
Hale’s childhood trauma steeled him, he said, supplying him with the necessary tools to reach out to children living through similar circumstances.
Growing up in West Phoenix, Ariz., Hale’s troubles began when he was 6. His stepfather’s mental health challenges spurred erratic and violent attacks toward his mother and the children. Hale and his two younger siblings did not have stability or support, he said.
“I was in and out of women’s shelters,” Hale recalled. “My mom eventually had a nervous breakdown.”
He struggled in school. His teachers pitied him, he said, and none sought to harness his potential.
“All I ever received was sympathy, which eventually turned into apathy,” Hale said. “I needed action. I needed accountability.”
Hale’s childhood best friend, Derrick Self, 40, described Hale’s challenges at home and the economically challenged, high-crime neighborhood in which they grew up.
“When you come out of the environment he’s from, either it consumes you or you rise above it. There’s no middle,” Self said, adding that most of the people they knew in the neighborhood are still in financial trouble, or worse. “Everyone who grew up there is dead or in jail.”
As the 2021 Texas Teacher of the Year, Hale will represent the entire state in the National Teacher of the Year program that will take place during the spring.