“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’s own 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, Delrick 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 really no middle,” Self said, adding that most of the people they knew in the neighborhood are still in financial trouble, or worse. “Basically, everyone who grew up there is dead or in jail.”
In seventh grade, Hale moved in with his grandmother in Portland, Ore., and remained there until his senior year. Living with his grandmother shifted his path, allowing him to refocus on his studies and his future.
“I started becoming more well-read,” Hale said. “I felt like nothing could stop me. Once I got out of the negative situation, I realized I was actually pretty smart and talented.”
Hale graduated from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, which he was able to attend through financial aid. He worked simultaneously to cover some of his costs, and he said he’s still in debt from student loans.
But despite his success in school and his mission to become a teacher, Hale continued to face challenges.
After Hale graduated from college, his 14-year-old sister became pregnant. He knew she was not in a position to care for a baby, so he sought custody to prevent the child from going into the foster care system.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Self said. “He has always been the one that wants to do what’s right. He became a single parent at 23 years old.”
Hale and the baby moved to Dallas shortly after he gained custody, hoping for a fresh start. The child stayed with him until turning 17 and recently moved back to Phoenix to live with Hale’s sister.
Soon after arriving in Dallas more than a decade ago, Hale began teaching at David G. Burnet Elementary School and has been there ever since. He quickly became known for his unconventional teaching style and his steadfast dedication to his students and their families.
“The impact he has had on our campus is huge,” said Sonia Loskot, who has been the principal of the school for seven years.
“He knows what it means to be hungry. If a child is hungry, he will do whatever it takes to feed that child,” she said, citing several instances when Hale purchased groceries for families in need.
“He’s been out there when our kids have lost their homes to fires. He takes parents to shelters. He has always stood out to me,” Loskot said. “He is a fighter for children.”
Plus, “His kids always outperform in academics, and the parents are always thankful,” she said.
Hale infuses music into his lesson plans as a way of connecting with his students, regardless of their first language or background.
Standing behind the DJ booth he set up in his classroom, Hale said, “Everybody likes to feel good, and music makes my kids feel good.”
He creates songs for each of his students and names the custom-composed instrumental tracks after them.
“This one is for Gianni,” he said, before playing the catchy tune. “It starts off with just the quick piano, because he’s very active, and then I added some jazz elements.”
Transitioning to a new song, Hale said, “Each kid brings something different to me. This one is for Melanie. She’s very smooth and doesn’t really like to dance. She’s more easygoing.”
Hale also made a class song: a rendition of “Gonna Fly Now,” otherwise known as the “Rocky” theme song.
It’s a fitting anthem: After all, Hale’s classroom is decked out in gold, and he wears a huge champion belt while he teaches.
“It’s all about being a champion, being gold,” he said. “I want them to know they are special, they are royalty.”
“He builds their pride,” Loskot echoed. “He tells the kids they are champions, and they really believe it.”
Hale has a 4-year-old daughter, but he sees all of the students as his children, too.
Tilia Sanchez, a mother of two of Hale’s former students, agreed.
“He is always going the extra mile,” Sanchez said. “One year, we were going through a very hard time financially, and Mr. Hale asked my girls for their letters to Santa. We weren’t going to have a Christmas that year, but he got them everything on their list.”
To this day, the sisters don’t know the gifts came from him, and it wasn’t the first or the last time Hale has anonymously granted a child’s Christmas wish. Every year, he purchases presents for a family that would otherwise not be able to afford gifts.
Beyond demonstrating significant acts of kindness, Hale has also been mobilizing for the school on a broader scale, raising more than $100,000 — mostly from community members and businesses he approached directly — to repair the school gym after it was destroyed in a tornado.
He also secured 16 used laptops for his students to use during the pandemic after reaching out to the Texas A&M University at Commerce in search of spare devices. Hale created YouTube videos for his students to watch over the summer in the hopes of avoiding a “summer slide” — a decline in reading skills and other academic abilities.
“I’ve worked in education for over 27 years, and I’ve never seen anybody make that kind of impact,” said Kevin Malonson, Hale’s mentor and the executive director of Teach Plus Texas — a nonprofit organization aimed at empowering teachers to advance policy changes.
Hale was initially nominated by his school for the district competition, which he won, and was automatically entered into the regional- and state-level pool of nominees.
The state award has been around for more than 60 years. Before Hale, a Black man had never been a finalist for his category, let alone a winner.
“I’m not only inspiring children that look like me or come from the same situation as me, but I’m also inspiring children who don’t look like me, who come from good situations, to see a Black man as a champion, a hero, an advocate and a quality teacher,” he said.
Hale will represent Texas in the national competition. A selection committee made up of national education associations will select four finalists in January, and in the spring, the president will announce the National Teacher of the Year in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House.
“I am very proud of him for the award, but more than anything, I am proud that he did not give up,” said his wife, Jaynacia Hale, 37.
She vouched for her husband’s commitment to his students: “Parents call him late at night. I don’t just watch him be a teacher, I watch him as a community leader for these students.”
“Having experienced trauma himself, he really picks up on the things that these kids are going through,” she added.
Hale said being a teacher is not simply his job — it’s his calling.
“I believe I was put on this Earth to advocate and fight for kids that don’t get fought for,” Hale said. “I know that some of the brightest minds come from the darkest places.”