career change

City's top TFA official says he's resigning to return to teaching

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

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede