Teaching during a pandemic is challenging for Eric Hale, but he knows many of his students are facing far bigger obstacles in their lives.
He knows because he's been there.
"I know how hard it is to go to school when you're hungry," he said. "I know how hard it is to go to school and focus when you saw your mom get beat by your stepdad last night. I know how hard it is to go to school when other kids say you smell bad, but you know it's because your water was shut off last week."
In a phone interview with TODAY, Hale, 40, explained how his own childhood trauma has informed his emotional approach with his students and propelled him to become a top teacher. He was named Texas Teacher of the Year last week, the latest in a string of accolades, but a particularly special one: He's the first Black man to ever receive the award in the state of Texas.
During a recent appearance on TODAY, Hale expressed gratitude, but pointed out that the recognition was a long time coming.
"I’m the first winner — I’m not the first African American male teacher in Texas that deserved it," Hale said. "So its about the 'we,' not the 'me.' I’m sharing this award with all the other African American male teachers in the state of Texas.”
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Hale teaches at an elementary school in Dallas, Texas, where the students are 98% Hispanic and most are living at poverty level. Many are first-generation Americans. Hale is known for going above and beyond for his students — texting with their parents after school hours, brainstorming fundraisers on the weekends, creating YouTube lessons throughout the summer after he felt his kids got cheated when COVID-19 cut their in-person school year short.
When the pandemic paused in-person learning in March, Hale worried for his students, knowing most of their parents had no choice but to keep working and virtual learning wouldn't be a priority.
"The digital divide in my school was huge," Hale said. "A lot of my kids didn't even have technology."
He raised money to get them school supplies, and then, when he realized that wouldn't be enough, found a way to get them all used laptops.
"I have a knack for finding resources and making things happen," he said. "I know what it's like to survive."
Hale grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, with a mother struggling with drug addiction and a stepfather who had schizophrenia. He's spoken publicly about living in and out of women's shelters and the abuse he experienced, sharing a tragic story during a TEDx speech earlier this year about how he couldn't sit still in class because he was covered in lacerations after being beaten with an extension cord.
A common refrain from Hale is that he wants to be the teacher he wishes he had as a child.
"People knew what I was going through; it wasn't a secret," he said. "I needed someone to fight for me, and nobody did. ... I know for a fact that some of the brightest minds come from the darkest places. That's why I work where I work, and that's why I fight so hard for these kids."
Yet his teaching career almost didn't happen. During Hale's first teaching job more than a decade ago, he clashed with the school principal, who he says didn't understand his hands-on, unconventional style of teaching. Hale has a DJ booth in his classroom and is known for his daily dance parties. When his probational teaching period ended, he wasn't invited back for a permanent position.
"I was young. I had my instrumental hip-hop music playing. I was just a lot different from a traditional teacher," he said. "She said, 'I don't think you're a good fit for education.'"
Fortunately, his next stop was David G. Burnet Elementary School, where he still teaches today.
This week marks Hale's first week back to in-person teaching with his students. He admits it's not ideal. Masks and social distancing are required and students are now restricted to their seats for dance parties. But it's better than nothing.
"It's tough right now, but it's not tougher than the situations my kids go home to," he said. "So like anything else, I will adapt, and I will figure out the best way to reach those kids."