TFA New York Executive Director Jeff Li, who is leaving TFA to return to the classroom

New York’s Teach for America executive director has taken the term “lead by example” very literally.

Jeff Li announced last week that he is resigning from his top post at Teach For America after less than two years on the job and returning to the classroom as a teacher. The announcement comes just days before his organization is set to announce a campaign meant to encourage alumni to stay in the teaching profession, rather than leave for other professions.

“A funny thing happened along the way as our team thought through this campaign,” Li wrote in an email to TFA alumni teachers on Thursday. “As I personally thought more about teaching beyond two years, and all that can be accomplished by doing so, I became truly re-inspired myself.”

The program that TFA is launching is called “Teach Beyond 2,” a not-so-subtle reminder for its alumni that even though their TFA commitment is technically only two years long, they should consider teaching to be a longer-term pursuit.

More than 40 percent of all TFA corps members in New York City stop teaching once their two-year requirement is fulfilled — a number that is consistent with nationwide TFA studies and only slightly higher than the 50 percent three-year departure rate for all teachers in urban schools. TFA’s critics say the high attrition shows that teaching is merely a resume-builder for some young college graduates before they move onto graduate school programs or higher-paying jobs.

Li’s career path has actually gone in the opposite direction. At 27, he was a highly paid consultant on track to making partner when he decided to enter teaching through TFA in 2003. In 2008, Li won the U.S. Department of Education’s American Star of Teaching award for the achievement gains his students made. He taught math for six years at P.S. 69 in the South Bronx and KIPP AMP, where he was principal when teachers voted to unionize. (A year later, the teachers voted to leave the union again.)

Returning to teaching entails a pay cut, but Li said he has never put compensation first. “I strive not to make too many decisions based on that,” he said.

Instead, he said a love of teaching compelled him back into the classroom.

“I think it was over the last several weeks where it became a real decision for me,” Li said. “This is where my heart is and I just think it’s hugely important work and felt personally fulfilled by the work.”

Li said he didn’t have a new job lined up for the 2012-2013 school year. But finding one shouldn’t be hard, according to his old boss.

“Jeff is one of the more remarkable teachers that I’ve ever met,” said David Levin, co-founder and superintendent of KIPP. “To have him return to the classroom is not only great for his students and their families, but for all the other teachers who will get to learn from him.”

A copy of the email he sent to TFA New York alumni is below.

Hello Alumni Teachers,

I am excited to write to you today about an exciting campaign that we are launching, called “Teach Beyond Two,” to inspire and empower our corps members to consider teaching beyond their two-year commitment, as well as celebrate and acknowledge the impact of each of you – our alumni teachers.

Our first event will be held on Tuesday, February 14th at 6:00pm at Barnes and Noble (86th and Lexington) to hear the story of one 1990 alumna, Denise Janssen, who has been in the classroom for the past two decades.  Regardless of the length of your time in the classroom, Denise’s story is simply worth hearing.  For more information and to register for this event, CLICK HERE.

We at Teach For America talk a lot about the second part of our theory of change – our alumni movement – and often highlight the incredible things our alumni do both within the education sector and beyond, whether that is being a principal, a policy leader, an elected official, a legal advocate for children, or so many other roles. And each of those roles is vitally important to us reaching our collective vision of educational equity for every child in this country.  But we also want to make sure that we always take time to value the “teach” in Teach For America – and realize that at our core, the one thing that binds all Teach For America alumni is the experience of teaching.  And that those who choose to teach beyond their two-year commitments – as I and so many other alumni have done – continue to have an incredible impact within our movement.

So this year, for the first time in the New York region’s history, we are going to launch a campaign that hopes to capture this spirit.  Called “Teach Beyond Two,” we will pilot a series of opportunities that will highlight the value of our alumni who stay in the classroom, as well as inspire and empower our corps members to consider teaching beyond the two-year commitment.  This is not to say that we do not value other paths besides teaching – and of course each of our corps members will decide for themselves what paths they will eventually take – but we also want to make the powerful statement that we absolutely do value those who choose to teach, and that we think it’s an incredibly important one for our collective movement.

A funny thing happened along the way as our team thought through this campaign.  As I personally thought more about teaching beyond two years, and all that can be accomplished by doing so, I became truly re-inspired myself.  I thought back to my 6 years in the classroom, and just felt like though I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent as Executive Director, there was so much more for me to do in the classroom.  There was so much more learning to be done, so many more kids and families to get to know, more lessons to write, more copies to make, more papers to grade, more bathroom breaks to run, more hooks to create, and ultimately, more moments of pure joy to be had on the way toward kids truly changing the trajectory of their lives.

And so I have recently made a personal decision – I will be returning to the classroom this fall, to be a teacher again, to continue teaching beyond two.  I could not be more excited and humbled to teach alongside each one of you in the fall.

I hope you join us for this event on February 14th, and other upcoming events that we’ll be piloting.

Thanks for all you do with our kids every day.

Happy teaching.

Jeff