- Cheryl Ritzel decided to quit her teaching job after 26 years. The final straw was the pandemic.
- She was only five years away from retirement and receiving full benefits from her pension.
- Ritzel started a local photography business called FocusEd Camera where she’s much happier.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Cheryl Ritzel, 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 an attorney, but after completing my undergraduate degree, I realized I didn’t have the money to go to law school. Instead I headed down the path of becoming a teacher. I taught pre-school, middle school, and high school and lasted 26 years working in this field.
I loved being a teacher, because I’m genuinely passionate about helping people. Education used to be a space where you could do that creatively, but not anymore. Now, there’s a lot more guidelines, restrictions, and time-intensive busywork we have to do.
During my last eight years as a teacher, I started to dread getting up in the morning. My alarm clock would go off and I’d just cry.
There was a long list of reasons why I wanted to quit
Those reasons included everything from the rigid and tedious curriculum 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 just multiple choice or short answer responses, now had to include a long-response question. This made it more time consuming to grade, and we had to do this at home, since there wasn’t time to do it during school hours.
We also had remediation we had to do before school hours and more paperwork we had to do after school that infringed on our personal time. The list goes on and on. I totally understand the reasoning behind each of these decisions and that they do help make for a better education; however, the burden on teachers is heavy, and at my job, nothing was done to alleviate that.
When the school would add another thing for us to do as teachers at meetings, I’d raise my hand and ask what they planned to take off our list. The answer was nothing, and the work just kept piling on.
The final straw for me was the pandemic
Rules and requirements kept changing, and I’d have these little mini panic attacks every time the school would say, “This is what we’re going to do now.”
First, they told us we’d work with some students in person and some digitally, by giving parents a choice, and that we’d teach these two classes at different times. Then they said we’d have blended classes, some students in person and some over Zoom. This meant we’d have to monitor students at home and in the classroom at the same time. Later, this changed, and we had to move around the class to help students in-person, while also monitoring students on Zoom to watch their behavior and answer any questions that 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 being told how things were going to work by people who hadn’t been inside 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’m asthmatic, and wearing a mask for 12 hours a day wasn’t good for me. I was hoping that the COVID-19 teaching requirements would fade when I came back, but nothing changed. So the next school year, in September 2021, I decided I was going to quit.
My cancer diagnosis got me thinking
When I was diagnosed with colon cancer 12 years ago, before the age of 40, I had to have surgery and then chemotherapy for eight months. It was a horrible experience. At the same time, the silver lining is that it made me much more aware of my day-to-day life and making each of those days count. I wanted to stop wishing my life away. My cancer diagnosis got me thinking about other jobs and the world of entrepreneurship.
Years later, after experiencing the stress of teaching, the added workload, and the changes due to the pandemic, I figured there was a better job out there for me — one where I’d be joyful and not just wish for the days to pass so I could make it to the weekend.
When I walked away from my teaching job, I walked away from quite a lot of money. I gave up health insurance benefits, a $50,000 salary, and the retirement perks I would have fully earned in my pension if I stayed another five years. But quitting was still worth it.
I knew I didn’t want to get a job working for anyone else
Since I knew I didn’t want to get a job working for anyone else, I decided to create my own company. I brainstormed ideas and eventually landed on starting a local photography education business called FocusEd Camera in Atlanta, pulling in skills from my teaching background and my lifelong passion for photography.
Before I left my job, I knew I had to be cautious with my money. I continued to contribute to my existing emergency fund, which was quite large already. That way, I wouldn’t start my journey as an entrepreneur with lingering fear around whether I could make my car or house payments. I had a pot of money I could pull from if my new business wasn’t making money right away.
I started off slowly by creating video content for my YouTube channel. I also built a website using Weebly, which is a free website builder that anyone can use and customize without knowing how to code. Lastly, I invested $4,300 in photography equipment to build my studio.
Since I’ve been passionate about photography my whole life, I already owned some equipment, so these costs might be higher for someone else who is just starting out. I also bought a color photo printer and additional office supplies. I used the large amount of savings I’d been stashing away for years to pay myself a salary and to pay rent during this time.
I signed up to be an Amazon affiliate
I started making money a little over one month after I officially launched my business, but the income didn’t come from clients — it came 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’d share an affiliate link that would generate money from purchases that were made. While I no longer use the Amazon 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 by creating photography instruction books and selling them on Amazon.
Both of these money-makers became ongoing passive income streams that allowed me to generate cash while focusing on getting local clients to sign up for one-on-one photography classes, which are customized to the student’s needs and take place in-person or over Zoom. I also offer group classes, and enrollment varies, but I cap the number of students at eight to make sure I have time with each of them. I now have a full calendar of classes (I offer three per week), but they don’t always fill up.
I’m 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 company will pop up 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 those are targeted ads to people who live near me. I use Pinterest to direct people to my Etsy and Amazon items. I post regularly on all of these sites and direct traffic to either my website, Etsy, Amazon, or YouTube.
I also advertise locally in newspapers, like the Patch, and through word-of-mouth and business cards at coffee shops and such.
The transition from teacher to entrepreneur wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be
I was spending half my day as a teacher instructing journalism and a yearbook class, so I was already using my photography and graphic design skills. I spent the other half of my day teaching financial literacy and entrepreneurship, so I understood how to create a business plan, strategize marketing (from using social media to passing out business cards locally), and how to price my services so that they’d be profitable.
Also, being a teacher taught me how to communicate clearly — both written and verbally — which comes in handy as an entrepreneur when working with clients and trying to sell my services.
My business is growing
While running this business hasn’t brought in enough money to replace my teacher’s salary or benefits so far, it’s growing, and I know it will one day surpass that point. I’m also adding other products to sell, producing fine art images that I sell, and have more ideas in the works.
However, the trade off has been worth every penny. The anxiety and stress of working as a teacher in the school system have disappeared.
Sometimes I miss working as a teacher, because there’s nothing better than watching a young person’s face light up when they grasp a new idea. I also miss having coworkers to laugh and chat with throughout the day. But I’m extremely happy with my decision.
My advice for people who want to quit their jobs is to not do it right away
Even if you’re super frustrated. Make sure you have something else lined up, whether it’s your own business or a new job. It’s important to get things situated before you leave. At the same time, don’t be afraid to take a risk.
Sure, if I’d stayed as a teacher, I would have kept making a steady salary and eventually received full retirement benefits. But as a cancer survivor, one thing I’ve learned is that nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.
Even if you can’t switch jobs or your career right now, consider starting a side hustle or doing something you are 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.