- Cheryl Ritzel has decided to quit her teaching job after 26 years. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the pandemic.
- She was only five years away from retirement and receiving the full benefits of her pension.
- Ritzel started a local photography business called FocusEd Camera where she is much happier.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with cheryl gable, a former teacher who quit her job to start her own business. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I didn’t always grow up wanting to be a teacher. My original plan was to become a lawyer, but after graduating from undergrad I realized I didn’t have the money to go to law school. Instead, I embarked on the path of becoming a teacher. I taught preschool, middle school and high school and worked 26 years in this field.
I loved being a teacher because I really care about helping people. Education used to be a space where you could do this creatively, but not anymore. Now there are a lot more guidelines, restrictions and tedious work that we have to do.
During my last eight years as a teacher, I began to be afraid to get up in the morning. My alarm clock was ringing and I was crying.
There was a long list of reasons I wanted to quit
These reasons included everything from rigid and tedious program requirements to the endless amount of work that would constantly be added to our to-do list. For example, they decided that all tests, which were once only multiple-choice or short-answer answers, now had to include a long-answer question. It made grading longer and we had to do it at home, as we didn’t have time to do it during school hours.
We also had remedial work to do before school hours and more paperwork to do after school that took away from our personal time. The list is lengthened increasingly. I fully understand the reasoning behind each of these decisions and that they contribute to a better education; however, the burden on teachers is heavy and in my work nothing has been done to lighten it.
When the school added another thing for us as teachers to do at meetings, I raised my hand and asked what they were planning to remove from our list. The answer was nothing, and the work kept piling up.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the pandemic
The rules and requirements were constantly changing, and I had these little mini-panic attacks every time the school said, “This is what we’re going to do now.
First, they told us that we would work with some students in person and others digitally, leaving the choice up to parents, and that we would teach these two courses at different times. Then they said we would have mixed classes, some students in person and some via Zoom. This meant that we had to monitor students at home and in class at the same time. Later, this changed and we had to move around the classroom to help students in person, while monitoring students on Zoom to observe their behavior and answer any questions they had. These changes occurred within days of each other.
I understand that the COVID-19 pandemic was a fluid and ever-changing situation, but it was so stressful for us teachers to be told how things were going to work by people who hadn’t walked into a classroom for years. They really had no idea what we were going through.
I ended up taking a leave of absence in September 2020 for health reasons. I have asthma and wearing a mask for 12 hours a day was not good for me. I was hoping that the educational requirements related to COVID-19 would fade when I returned, but nothing has changed. So the next school year, in September 2021, I decided to stop.
My cancer diagnosis got me thinking
When I was diagnosed with colon cancer 12 years ago, before the age of 40, I had to undergo surgery and then chemotherapy for eight months. It was a horrible experience. At the same time, the silver lining is that it has made me much more aware of my daily life and that every one of those days matters. I wanted to stop wishing for my life. My cancer diagnosis got me thinking about other jobs and the world of entrepreneurship.
Years later, after experiencing the stress of teaching, the extra workload and the changes due to the pandemic, I thought there was a better job for me – one where I would be happy and not just wishing the days would pass so i could make it to the weekend.
When I quit my teaching job, I lost a lot of money. I gave up health insurance benefits, a $50,000 salary, and retirement benefits that I would have fully earned in my pension had I stayed five more years. But giving up was still worth it.
I knew I didn’t want to work for someone else
Since I knew I didn’t want to work for someone else, I decided to start my own business. I brainstormed ideas and eventually decided to start a local photography education business called FocusEd Camera in Atlanta, leveraging the skills from my teaching background and my lifelong passion for photography.
Before quitting my job, I knew I had to be careful with my money. I continued to contribute to my existing emergency fund, which was already quite large. That way, I wouldn’t start my journey as an entrepreneur with a lingering fear of whether I could afford my car or my house. I had a pot of money I could dip into if my new business didn’t make money right away.
I started small by creating video content for my YouTube channel. I also created a website using Weebly, which is a free website builder that anyone can use and customize without knowing how to code. Finally, I invested $4,300 in camera equipment to build my studio.
As I’ve been passionate about photography all my life, I already owned some gear, so those costs might be higher for someone else just starting out. I also purchased a color photo printer and additional office supplies. I used the large amount of savings I had accumulated over the years to pay myself a salary and pay rent during that time.
I signed up to be an Amazon Affiliate
I started making money a little over a month after I officially launched my business, but the income came not from customers, but from affiliate links. I signed up to be an Amazon Affiliate (which most people with a business or website can do), and every time I mentioned a product in my YouTube videos, I shared an affiliate link that would generate money from purchases made. Although I no longer use Amazon’s affiliate program (because it was time consuming), I now work directly with companies as an affiliate to sell their gear on my website.
The second way I started making money was creating photography instruction manuals and selling them on Amazon.
Both of these sources of money have grown into ongoing passive income streams that have allowed me to generate money while focusing on enrolling local clients in one-to-one photography classes, which are tailored to the needs of the client. student and take place in person or over Zoom. I also offer group classes and enrollment varies, but I limit the number of students to eight to ensure I have time with each one. I now have a busy class schedule (I offer three a week), but they don’t always fill up.
I am on several platforms to promote my new business
I created a profile for my business on Google Business and Yelp to find local clients. When someone in the Atlanta area searches for “photography classes near me,” my business appears as an option in their Google or Yelp search. I also sometimes offer a coupon or discount with Google and Yelp that might encourage a buyer.
I am on several social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MeWe, YouTube and Nextdoor. The only one I advertise with is Nextdoor because they are targeted ads to people who live near me. I use Pinterest to direct people to my Etsy and Amazon items. I regularly post to all of these sites and drive traffic to my website, Etsy, Amazon, or YouTube.
I also advertise locally in newspapers, like the Patch, and through word of mouth and business cards in cafes and the like.
The transition from teacher to entrepreneur was not as difficult as I thought
I was spending half my day as a teacher teaching journalism and a yearbook class, so I was already using my skills in photography and graphic design. I spent the other half of my day teaching financial literacy and entrepreneurship, so I understood how to create a business plan, develop a marketing strategy (from using social media to distributing business cards locally) and how to price my services so that they are profitable.
Additionally, being a teacher has taught me to communicate clearly – both in writing and verbally – which comes in handy as an entrepreneur when working with clients and trying to sell my services.
My business is growing
Although running this business has not brought in enough money to replace my teacher’s salary or benefits so far, it is growing and I know it will one day pass that point. I’m also adding other products to sell, producing art images that I sell, and having more ideas in the works.
However, the compromise was worth every penny. The anxiety and stress associated with working as a teacher in the school system disappeared.
Sometimes I miss working as a teacher because there’s nothing like seeing a young person’s face light up when they grasp a new idea. I also miss having co-workers to laugh and chat with throughout the day. But I am extremely satisfied with my decision.
My advice to people who want to quit their job is not to do it right away.
Even if you’re super frustrated. Make sure you have something else planned, whether it’s your own business or a new job. It is important to situate things before leaving. At the same time, don’t be afraid to take risks.
Of course, if I had stayed on as a teacher, I would have continued to earn a stable salary and eventually received full retirement benefits. But as a cancer survivor, one thing I’ve learned is that no one is guaranteed tomorrow.
Even if you can’t change jobs or careers right now, consider starting a side hustle or doing something you’re passionate about as a hobby. It’s good for your mental health to do what you love and spend time with the people you love.
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