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'If I fold, what do they have left?' Texas Teacher of the Year keeps focus on students to drown out political noise

It’s been a draining year-and-a-half for educators, but Texas’s top teacher refuses to let his students see him struggle.

DALLAS — A third school year complicated by COVID is now underway across North Texas, and the reigning Texas Teacher of the Year says his friends and colleagues are “emotionally drained.”

“They’re calling on all the strength and prayers of everybody,” Eric Hale said. “But we refuse to let COVID contain expectations for the students we serve.”

Hale teaches a combined first- and second-grade class at David G. Burnet Elementary in Dallas ISD.

He was named Texas Teacher of the Year in October 2020 thanks to his uncanny ability to connect with and inspire young students.

While COVID has not dampened his spirit, it has disappointed his soul.

“I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a little bit disheartening,” Hale admits.

RELATED: History made: Dallas ISD teacher becomes first Black man to win Texas Teacher of the Year

To start another school semester with surging cases and a raging debate about masks is not easy.

“Luckily children aren’t old enough to be part of a political party,” he said, “so I keep the main thing the main thing, and that’s the success of my students.”

In the spring of 2020, Hale transitioned to a fully online classroom, posting lessons on YouTube and learning to teach on Zoom.

That fall he continued teaching virtually, but from his classroom.

Eventually, Dallas ISD transitioned back to an in-person teaching environment, and that’s how Hale ended the 2020-2021 school year.

But with the rampant spread of the Delta variant of COVID, it feels like Texas has taken several steps backward as the 2021-2022 school year begins.

“I definitely believe it’s made the children mature faster,” Hale said. “They’re cognizant of being safe, and they’re doing the best they can to rise to the occasion. And so many teachers across America are doing the same thing.”

“The children we serve are resilient – they’re champions.”

Hale’s own daughter is now in kindergarten at Burnet.

RELATED: President Biden calls Dallas ISD superintendent, thanks him for holding firm on mask requirements

The campus earned the prestigious designation of being a Lighthouse School, something only one other Dallas ISD school has achieved, for instilling character in the kids.

“We’re extremely proud of it,” Hale said.

Hale said he’s also proud of Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa’s pandemic response.

Hinojosa defied an order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting public school districts from requiring masks and – as of the day we spoke with Hale - Dallas ISD was requiring masks on all campuses.

“It’s definitely good to know that my superintendent stands on the side of science,” Hale said.

When asked how he keeps going despite so many challenges to teaching during a pandemic, Hale said it’s because he easily relates to the kids in his class.

More than 90% of Burnet’s student body is growing up in poverty.

“I think about the one educator that stood in the gap for me, and I know that I’m that educator for many of the kids that are in my school community,” he said.

“I’m the only person that they’ve got. If I fold, what do they have left?”

RELATED: Dallas’ top teacher misses his students, but says he is 'scared' to return to the classroom