Story by Mary Martin. Photos by Kirsten Chilstrom.
Early this year, weeks before quarantine or face masks were topics of regular conversation, you could find Eric Hale front and center in a classroom at David G. Burnet Elementary School in Northwest Dallas. Behind him, a six-foot cutout of a Black superhero. In front of him, a table set up with DJ equipment, ready to play a custom beat for each of his 20 kindergarten and first grade students. Next to him is Jordan Dontos, a new student teacher, launching into his second career at the age of 46. At first glance, Mr. Hale and Mr. Jordan (as he was quickly dubbed by his students) have nothing in common. Eric comes from an urban neighborhood wracked with generations of disinvestment, while Jordan grew up in the comfortable suburbs of Seattle. But their passion for creative and impactful education for some of the poorest students in Dallas schools has created a bond and builds on a legacy that Eric has purposefully planted as he helps students, teachers, and the community around his school to grow.
“I sought out Eric,” says Jordan. “Shortly after the time of the October tornados that tore through Dallas, I read about him and saw his interview with Kelly Clarkson. He had just won the 2019 Annual Queen Smith Award, given to the National Urban School Teacher of the Year, and I knew that was the kind of teacher I wanted to be.” After setting aside his career as an advertising writer, Jordan is currently finishing his education degree at the Teacher Development Center at UT Dallas and needed practical hours in a classroom setting. “I was ecstatic when Eric agreed to host my student teaching because he is so different from all the other teachers,” says Jordan. “He uses his creativity and leadership and treats every kid like a champion.”
For Eric, the championship theme is purposeful. He wants his students to see themselves as winners, just like he has developed his own winning attitude. And it has paid off for both him and his students. Eric was awarded the 2019-2020 Elementary Teacher of the Year for Dallas ISD, honored by The Senate of Texas and Senator Nathan Johnson with a resolution for commitment of excellence in public school education, and was given the Teaching Excellence Award from Texas A&M University–Commerce, where he earned his Masters in Education in 2015. He was also awarded a special letter and honor by the City of Dallas and Mayor Johnson. Eric’s next goal is to win Texas Teacher of the Year, a challenging feat for anyone, especially for a teacher who didn’t come into education from the typical pipeline. Eric’s journey through high school and college, then earning his alternative teaching certificate, was fraught with adversity, testing his grit all along the way.
It wasn’t that no one in Eric Hale’s family had graduated from college—it was that no one in Eric’s entire neighborhood had graduated from college. Raised in Maryvale, just west of Phoenix proper, his childhood was split between his mother and stepfather, who struggled with mental health and substance use disorders, and his grandmother and Aunt Rose, two loving women who stepped in to support and guide Eric along the way.
Eric wasn’t the perfect student, getting himself caught up in trouble from time to time. “I went to a school that didn’t have any expectation for me to be a leader in the community,” says Eric. “I mean, it was a flip of a coin if they even thought I was going to be a regular, productive member of society. I was basically failed up through the system.” But there were one teacher who saw his drive and potential, and pointed him in the right direction—Mr Gumpert. When Eric graduated from high school, beating the 50% dropout rate, he looked around at his handful of options and chose to enroll at the local community college. “I graduated from high school with no plan, and community college was basically a joke, but where else am I going to be around cute girls? Let’s go to community college,” says Eric with a laugh.
Eric’s natural leadership was evident immediately—during that first semester, he was even elected Black Student Body President. But before he could finish his first year, his college advisor, Mrs. Jones, proposed a new plan to Eric. “She saw my potential, and I had no idea, but she was also the head of alumni relations for the first private HBCU in the United States, Wilberforce University,” explains Eric. “She told me I was too talented to be at this community college, and asked me if I would go to a college out of state if she could get me in.” Eric said yes, and that January he was on his very first plane ride to Ohio, where he was welcomed by Mrs. Jones’ Delta Sigma Theta sorority network, who helped Eric find a job on campus and ensured he had what he needed to succeed.
After a year at Wilberforce, Eric found out that tuition was being raised (which was ultimately revealed to be financial embezzlement from the administration). He could no longer afford to attend the college. “I didn’t have the nerve to tell my family I would have to go home, and there was no way I was giving up on my dream of graduating with a college degree,” says Eric. With all the courage he could muster, Eric found his way to Wright State University, transferring his credits and eventually graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership.
Heading back to the Phoenix area after graduation, Eric took on a role in the management track at Target and tried to settle into his new life in a corporate career. But he quickly realized that his skills, talents, and even his education, were not a guarantee of success. “It was obvious I was a diversity hire, and my promotion path was capped. It wasn’t just a glass ceiling; that ceiling was made of concrete,” says Eric. As he struggled to find his professional path, Eric also adopted his two-year-old niece, who had been in child protective services for six months. “We moved to the outskirts of the hood and I was just trying to figure it all out as a new dad and a single 23-year-old guy.” Eric began researching the best cities for new career opportunities and landed on Dallas. He and his daughter made a quick move to Las Colinas, where he took his first steps to becoming a teacher. “I’ve always been passionate about helping students that come from really rough backgrounds because I know the help that I needed, and I never really got it,” says Eric. “I didn’t feel like there was anyone fighting for kids who looked like me, or came from poverty, or came from trauma.”
Eric’s first classroom in the Dallas area was just that—a classroom full of Black students at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in an economically disadvantaged corner of Richardson. That experience solidified his mission as both an education and as an example for students and other future teachers. “I feel the weight of advocacy and representation every day. My whole career is a protest,” says Eric. “That’s how I view what I do. I know who I represent. I know there are kids of color and poor white rural kids who are looking at me and saying, he’s cut from the same cloth as me, if he can do it, I can do it.” Currently, there are just 781 Black male teachers in Dallas ISD (out of 10,428 teachers), with only 371 teaching core content. Eric recognizes that his excellence as a teacher speaks volumes about what can be expected from students with fewer resources.
This fall will be Eric’s tenth year in education, and his ninth year at the Burnet campus. Supported by Principal Sonia Loskot, Eric has continued to go above and beyond typical classroom duties by personally adopting a family each Christmas to purchase all of their presents, working with local nonprofits to create campus murals, and partnering with businesses and philanthropic organizations to fill the gaps in school resources. In a building still covered in tarps from tornado damage, surrounded by a neighborhood where every third house is still in need of repairs, every dollar matters. The outside fundraising began when Eric realized his students had not left the campus on a field trip in four years. “I started asking why we hadn’t been to the zoo—I love the zoo! I was told that there wasn’t enough money for it and it would be another day away from STAAR practice,” explains Eric. So, Eric began speaking at leadership groups across Dallas and raised over $9,000 so that every child at Burnet could go on a field trip. After that first fundraising success, Eric continued advocating his students in the community, raising a total of $100,000 over three years.
Then this spring, Eric confronted a new challenge: COVID-19. The novel coronavirus has heightened every classroom issue and created new problems for already under-resourced teachers and schools. Of course, Eric was unwilling to give up, choosing instead to get creative and keep teaching with every tool he could find. Even after the spring semester ended, Eric continued to teach into the summer months. “I’ve been teaching all summer long,” Eric shares. “I started a YouTube channel because I want ‘summer thrive,’ not ‘summer slide’. I called it Operation Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop and Jordan is my right-hand-man on that project.”
At the start of the school closures, Eric’s kindergarten and first grade students were struggling to get access to technology, so Jordan started his own GoFundMe to raise $1,100—enough money to purchase leveled reading sets and sight-word flashcards for each student. Realizing that computers were still needed, Eric reached out to his alma mater, Texas A&M Commerce, which supplied him with 16 laptops—one for each child who still needed a computer. Dallas ISD also stepped in to load each laptop with the software needed for digital learning.
Eric has welcomed partners from across the community to support his school and students. United to Learn recently launched a virtual tutoring program with high school seniors and Eric’s students, and local businesses like P&C Bank, Teach Plus, and Kessler Architecture have helped to fill funding gaps. Nonprofits like Commit, Leaders Readers Network, and DaVerse Lounge brought community, books, and creativity into the classroom, and Eric’s work with Leadership Dallas has connected him with a strong group of supporters who have championed his students at every turn.
And the Burnet classrooms will need every bit of support they can gather as schools across the country face uncertainty for the fall semester. Eric is realistic about the risks, even though his determination to show up for students never wavered. “The parents of my students are putting their life on the line as hourly workers, and then have to send their kids to school and put their kids’ lives on the line,” explains Eric. “We cannot have a cavalier attitude about teachers and students back in schools. You are sticking us in a petri dish and people are dying every single day. And now I am literally risking my life. I have a four-year-old and a 17-year-old, and I want to hold grandkids. My job is to give a magical educational experience to my students regardless of whether I’m in-person in a hazmat suit, or at home online. I owe that to my kids and the school community I serve. How do I create that magical experience that is so strong that it can go into the living room of the kids that I serve? It’s my responsibility to do that.”
No matter the challenge, Eric is focused not only on the lives where he currently has impact, but the future of educators in schools like Burnet. Jordan is a prime example of the kind of teacher that Eric is looking to nurture—a teacher that has found his authentic voice and is resolute in helping students with limited access to resources. “Being a legend in education is based on the legacy that I leave, the branches of educators that were touched by me,” says Eric. “The one teacher that I did have that changed my life, looks like Jordan—even Jordan’s demeanor is like Mr. Gumpert. It came back around full circle and now I’m mentoring somebody that is a younger version of the person who changed my life. And I’m proud that Jordan wants to go to the kids that need him.”
As a Black teacher with a white student teacher, serving a majority Latino student body, Eric and Jordan have experienced first-hand what it looks like to build real relationships across racial barriers. Eric admits, “At first I was an outsider to this community, and it took a year or two for the community to feel me out and see that I love their kids. And now I’m not just the loud Black teacher, I’m family. I have grandmothers dropping off homemade tamales. At the end of the day, our love is color blind, but I am also on the front lines of recruiting and retaining more men of color into the school district because our representation still matters in our schools.”
At the back of Eric’s classroom is the phrase “Speak what you seek, until you see what you say,” a reminder that vision and confidence are foundational to success, both in the classroom and in the community. And his champion belt? Eric keeps it front and center to remind his students who they truly are, despite the adversities they face. “The champion belt is not just about becoming a champion,” says Eric. “Being the champion is staying consistent. How long can you be consistent in your greatness? That’s a true champion.” The consistency in Eric’s life and career is already bearing fruit, not just as a teacher, but as a holistic educator with vision for the community that surrounds his school.