Close shot of a younger man with short black hair, smiling, wearing a white striped shirt and gold tie, in front of a window looking onto the top of a building.

Why One Doctor-TFA Alum Is Committed to Social Justice

A Teach For America alumnus describes his path to service from TFA to medical residency.
Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Ira Leeds (Memphis ’06) knew he wanted to practice medicine early on. As an undergrad at Princeton, he applied and was accepted to medical school at Emory University in Atlanta. He made the decision to wait, however, deferring his admission to work at a school on the outskirts of inner city Memphis as a Teach For America corps member.

“In the process of being the best medical school candidate that I could be, I think I lost track of a lot of my motivations for going into healthcare in the first place,” Ira admits. Deferring for two years to take part in TFA allowed Ira to refocus his motivation and reflect on the values that would eventually lead him to where he is today.

Ira is currently in his third year of a five-year residency in general surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. He plans to extend the residency by two years, with future plans for a fellowship in colorectal surgery focused on underserved populations with colorectal disease.

"My Teach For America experience definitely colored what kind of residency program and what kind of clinical training I wanted,” Ira says. “My wife and I felt pretty strongly that we wanted to continue to work in a service-oriented healthcare model.”

A younger man with short black hair wearing blue medical scrubs and a stethoscope sitting with his hands held together in front of him looking at the person in front of him, in a hallway with many people walking around.

In Memphis, Ira experienced the apprehension any teacher would on their first day in the classroom. He taught biology and physical science in a school with a large population of English-language learners and refugees—16 languages were represented—and his grand plans for disciplined classroom management and a rigidly structured curriculum were quickly reevaluated.

In those first few weeks he realized no matter how well he had planned his lessons he would have to take each day one at a time.

"A lot of what you need to be able to do to be most successful as a corps member is to be willing to shift gracefully with adversity and change,” Ira says. “If you’re someone who is stuck in a one-way, linear thinking pattern or a plan for how you're going to affect change, it's going to be hard for you."

Though he saw gains that first year, it was in his second year that he saw real progress among his students on the state standardized test, even among those whose first language wasn’t English.

"By the end I had a much more fluid perspective on student learning,” Ira said. “With the different social and personal issues a lot of my students had gone through, you really had to meet them where they were. That change of perspective meant that my lesson planning and also the content of my instruction changed a lot.”

Even before TFA, Ira believed strongly in the civic service model, admitting that for him personally, serving others was mandatory. He credits TFA for showing him there are historic injustices and social obstacles facing many communities, and existing gaps in education, as well as in healthcare, are contributing to these socio-economic differences and their prevalence.

As a teacher, Ira admits he struggled with the question of whether he was effective in helping his students excel.

“I think that's a natural tension you have to think about,” Ira says. “But the metrics-driven approach that Teach For America uses showed me, without a doubt, that the students benefited and met their goals in my classroom.” 

Dr. Ira Leeds

Today, Ira admits he’s been warned that he’s not your average surgeon—he talks more, which is good when it comes to communicating with patients about the procedures they are about to undergo. And his interests in healthcare and social justice are a direct reflection of his time in Memphis.

“Teach For America was the crucible where a lot of that came from,” Ira says. “I absolutely don't think I'd have the mindset or perspective on the world that I have today without the experience I went through with Teach For America.”


Want to learn more about life after the corps? Join us for a webinar on February 22 to hear from alumni who are making a difference in the medical field.


Join our diverse force of leaders shaping the course of our nation.