Classroom Royalty - A Conversation with Eric Hale

From the outside, David G. Burnet Elementary could be any other school in Texas.  But when you start to walk the halls, there’s a good chance you’ll hear something special emanating from one particular classroom.

Eric Hale: Music to me is a jewel from heaven.

This is Eric Hale, a nationally recognized educator with nine years of experience.

Eric Hale: I introduce my kids to music that they would normally not hear, from soul to reggae to classic rock to classical music, and I use those different sounds to kind of stir up different emotions in them depending on what I want to get out of them. So if we're working on reading language arts, I might put on Bach to really, really zone in, let's get focused. Then I have a portion, usually in math, where I'm like, okay, they're doing independent work and I'm letting them lead the learning. And so when that's happening, that's my moving and grooving section. I usually put on classic hip hop or stuff that makes you feel good. And I say, you know, let the music do the talking for you, so they're not talking, they're focused on their work, but it's all right for them to feel good, and to move around. Maybe they don't get a concept very well, I have a special tune that I put on that kinda like re-energizes them. And it's just me literally talking to them and speaking life into them while they're working.

Hale’s classroom features a full, professional DJ setup.

Hale: I use the turntables and scratch and stuff like that.

A championship belt hangs from the ceiling.

Hale: Everything in here is about us believing and working towards being the best, period.

There’s a superhuman mascot called “The Chief,” keeping watch.

Hale: He's just somebody that lets them feel good. Like, Hey, I got a superhero, a custom-made superhero.

And everything is royal blue, with crowns dotting the walls.

Hale: So when I say get royal, they know, straighten up, sit up straight, be focused, because I say all the time, we always got to be ready for paparazzi. And so you always want to be on your best behavior. Everything's about being royal, everything’s about being a king or a queen, being the king or queen of your own destiny.

Hale designed each of these unique strategies to promote self-sufficiency and student-led growth.  Not just because those traits are important in theory, but because they are vitally necessary to ensure student success in a set a challenging circumstances.

Hale: I teach kindergarten and first grade self-contained Montessori style, with no Montessori training. So I'm held responsible for not only the kindergarteners being successful and ready for first grade, but I'm also held responsible for my first graders being ready for second grade. I don't get any more time, so I have to teach two grade levels, everything, in the same amount of time as somebody who's just teaching one grade level, because there's no funds to hire another kindergarten teacher.

So that’s why it’s so important for us to get school finance reform up and running so a teacher like me doesn’t have to do so much.

Everything in Hale’s classroom, from the turntables to the decorations to the custom-made cardboard cutout of a superhero-

Hale: Kind of looks like me, formerly, when I was in shape.

-was paid for out of Hale’s own pocket.

Hale: School finance needs to be changed. It's a travesty that, when you look at all reports economically, there's money here, we're thriving. But when you look at the usage of funds, we're ranked 43rd in what we spend per child in the country. That's ridiculous. And so when you think about not having enough resources, that comes into play. Right now I need to be one-to-one when it comes to technology because I need to be able to flip flop. If I'm doing a small group of Kinder, it would be ideal to have a lot of my first graders on a reading program or Istation or something like that. But I don't have enough technology to do that. And so I ended up having to work so much harder for lack of funding.

But Hale doesn’t just bemoan the current state of affairs.  He does everything in his power to provide what the state doesn’t.

Hale: For years, we didn't have enough money to go on field trips here. And it was something that just wasn't addressed, and I teach kids that are so poor that they don't even leave their five mile radius. And I said, this is ridiculous. I got to do something. And so I started speaking everywhere last year, and God blessed me to be able to raise funds. So last year I raised about $9,000 for the kids. And every child at the school was able to go on a field trip using the funds that I provided. And so that's just extra resources that I bring to my school to basically meet the needs that the school has that they wouldn't be able to meet if it wasn’t for somebody like really working hard, bringing in those partnerships throughout the community. But if you don't have a teacher that's going to put in all those extra hours and build those relationships, then what do you have? You just have a school full of kids that live in the ghetto that never get to go anywhere? And so I just was fed up. And there was no way I can say that I love these kids and I'm a great educator if I'm not willing to do what it takes for them to have lifelong experiences.

Hale goes above and beyond every day for his students, and the rest of his school community as well.

Hale: I'm doing much more than just what's in the curriculum. I spend most of my time educating my parents. I'm doing a whole 360 degree level of teaching, because everything that happens at my school, I have my finger on the pulse. Any needs that need to be met, if there's anybody that's going to make it happen, it's going to be me.

This steadfast commitment to his students’ success shows up in achievement and growth.  Last year, 95% of Hale’s students reached district-wide benchmarks in reading and math, even the ones with special needs.

Hale: I have kids that are in SPED currently that are still achieving high, higher than kids that aren't diagnosed with anything, because that's just the expectation that I have for my kids to be successful regardless of their circumstances.

I teach what’s in the neighborhood. I take a lot of pride in that and the success they’ve been able to have.

Until recently, Hale’s success wasn’t reflected in his salary.  Despite spending a great deal of his own time, effort, and resources above what was expected of him, he was making less than his peers because of a salary schedule that accounted for experience, but not student outcomes. Then his district, Dallas ISD, implemented the Teacher Excellence Initiative, or TEI, a multi-measure evaluation system meant to support and reward effective educators.

Hale: TEI changed my life. It's safe to say that I'm kind of like the poster child for TEI. It's like the best thing that's ever happened to education. For somebody that four years ago was making $46,000, working just as hard. I was already working to that level. It's just, nobody knew it. So when it came time to put my application in and get observed, the district just got to see how strong of a teacher I was. I've almost doubled my salary. I was moving the needle then, I was just making $46,000. Now, because of TEI, I make 82.

Hale is quick to point out that money is far from the only factor in his decision to teach.

Hale: I'm definitely not in it for the money. But the money helps, though. I mean, you show me how much you value me by how much you pay me, period. But I'm getting paid what I'm worth, so I'm not going to give up everything that I’ve built and what I'm continuously trying to build where I'm at chasing $8,000 more somewhere else.  But what I'm getting paid will keep me in the classroom.

In fact, it already has.  

Hale: It's blessed me, because I've always wanted to be a lifelong educator and I really don't have a desire to be a principal. But before the TEI money really started to come into effect, I went ahead and got my Master's in Administration purely because I have two children myself, and what I was making wasn't gonna allow me to send my own kids to college. And so I was making that decision that so many teachers make, well, let me get my Master's so I can go into administration, but the key is you got a lot of phenomenal educators in the classroom that make the sacrifice of their craft for more money to provide for their own family that become average to poor administrators. It's like a double negative. That trickle down effect of great teachers leaving the classroom is killing school districts.

That’s why Hale sees multi-measure evaluations for teachers and school leadership as a key to improving our entire education system.

Hale: All the young people that have that fire, that have that passion, they eventually want to get married or they have a kid and they just can't afford to stay in the classroom. And why do I want to stay in the classroom when I'm putting in 60 hours a week, where I'm coaching this or I'm doing this for free for the betterment of the school community, and I get no recognition, no rewards and I don't even get a financial bump. And then I have to look at people at my school that are making twice as much as me purely because they show up and they've just been around for 10 years. It's ridiculous. And so TEI is the best thing that's happened probably in the nation.

So like every other issue that has arisen in his classroom, Hale took matters into his own hands. He went down to Austin to testify before members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Article III, the body that determines how much we spend on schools. Here he is, back on February 20th:

Hale (Testimony): TEI financially rewards the most impactful teachers for their performance in the classroom and has provided a pathway for the district's most effective teachers to continue to save and change lives. I want proficient teachers in the classroom. I want teachers that are willing to get trained. I want teachers that have a love for educating children of all races and colors for the betterment of society as a whole. And to get those type of teachers in the profession and to keep them in the profession, we gotta be held accountable. But with accountability comes financial compensation.

Because I’m a professional, just like a lawyer, just like a doctor. And I want to be treated as such. So because I want you to treat me that way, I gotta produce. And I produce every year.

Hale was far from the only educator to raise his voice on this issue.  Other like-minded teachers who have also experienced the benefits of multi-measure evaluation systems joined him in this and other hearings.

Sakennia Reed (Dallas ISD): I also support an Effective Educator Allotment for multi-measure evaluation systems that provide adequate compensation for our best teachers.

Sarah Perez (San Antonio ISD): Several districts, such as Dallas and San Antonio ISD, already use this innovative tool to ensure that their high needs students receive the most effective instruction.

Natalie Brown (Dallas ISD):  I think if you're a great teacher, you shouldn't just get, like, an accolade or like, hey, we're going to give you more students to work before and after school. That that doesn't pay my bills or pay my student loans. TEI increased my salary $30,000 over three years. Can't be stated for a lot of other professions, or a lot of other districts in this state. And it allows me to stay in the classroom and continue to make that impact, year after year.

Unfortunately for Sakennia Reed, Sarah Perez, Natalie Brown, and many other educators across the state, optional new funding for the creation of multi-measure evaluation systems was removed in mid-March from the language of House Bill 3, the comprehensive school finance reform bill currently making its way through the Texas House. Opponents of the measure feared that linking teaching pay to student performance would adversely affect teachers serving high-needs students, who are more likely to struggle on traditional outcome metrics.

But this argument contains a fundamental misunderstanding of the policy at hand. As discussed in our previous episode, an evaluation system doesn’t work when it measures student test scores alone. Rather, it must create a holistic picture of the classroom experience that includes improvement over time and the student’s perception.

Hale: Most people try to teach from the mind first and then the heart. I teach from the heart, through the heart, to the mind.  You can't have expectations without connections. So I build connections and hold the bar of expectations simultaneously.

I’ve been lucky enough to have kids that achieve way higher than maybe even what their IQ is, because my kids would run through a brick wall for me based off of the connection that I built with them, the love. I love you, therefore this is what I expect. This is just how we do things.

Eric Hale is just one of a vast network of Texas educators who proves that all students can succeed, no matter how challenging the circumstances. By employing a multiple-measure evaluation system, districts can reward educators seeing the most student success, help all our teachers achieve at this level, and treat every educator like the professional they are.

Hale: It's my calling to teach kids who are poor. If you're in poverty, I love you, and I'm going to do the best I can for you. It's not a black thing, it's not a brown, it's not a white thing. It's a poverty thing for me. A lot of the brightest minds reside in the darkest places. The area that I teach in, this is the highest zip code for sex offenders. This is also the red light district in Dallas. So every time I go home I see nothing but prostitutes. And so when I look at those young prostitutes I wonder,  what teachers did they have that failed them? How did their life go so wrong that they're out on the streets prostituting in the cold? And so that hits me hard, and that kind of re-energizes me to work even harder to make sure that my kids don't end up in those situations. You don't know who you're reaching. And I could be teaching the person that's going to find the cure for AIDS or find the cure for cancer. He could be right in my class, right now.

What I’m doing is powerful and it means something for me to be a teacher that stays in the classroom, and now I have the opportunity to do what I love and stay in the classroom and affect lives for as long as I’m allowed to do it.

The Twisted Saga of Texas School Finance is powered by InvestEdTX, and produced by me, Joshua Kumler.  It is executive produced by me, along with Kathryn Mikeska and Rob Shearer. Mixed and mastered by Adrien Palmer.  Music by Trevor Yokochi. Additional sound from Kimiko Ishizaka and the Passion HiFi. Special thanks to Eric Hale for everything he does on behalf of Texas children.  Our website is, where you can sign up for action alerts that will keep you up to date on school finance reform this legislative session. This podcast is dedicated to two groups of hard-workers who don’t get paid enough for all they do: teachers and Texas legislators.  The future is in both of your hands. We’ll be back soon with more of the Twisted Saga.

Joshua Kumler