Annie Murphy Karabell is a student of life. Anything that piques her interest - whether education, children, yoga, or starting a family - becomes a subject for serious investigation. Read on to learn why she left a career in a field she loves to chart a new course...
How did you know it was time to make a change?
In January, my whole life seemed to change: my father-in-law was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a horribly malignant brain tumor, and I found out I was pregnant. It sounds cliche, but I started to see that life could change at any second. Someone perfectly healthy with a great job and a lovely family could find it all in jeopardy. I had just started my second semester of graduate school after leaving teaching. I was disappointed with my first semester's classes, but decided it would be premature to give up before a year passed.
Just a few days after I found out I was pregnant I became very sick. I visited the ER and missed several classes because of the nausea. Eventually I started taking two medicines around the clock and was able to function only in a very compromised way. The illness left me unable to do anything I enjoyed - no yoga, no dog walking. Even reading was difficult. I had to put the little energy I had toward keeping up with my classes and related responsibilities. At one point I realized I wasn't doing anything that brought me joy. I didn't enjoy my classwork or feel it was preparing me for anything I wanted to do, and I dreaded my assistantship work. None of it felt relevant. I didn't want to be learning research methods or the history of the disability movement; I wanted to learn how to help children learn better. I had no desire to spend my life in an office, away from kids, evaluating programs teachers resented. I know programs need to be evaluated, just not by me!
What gave you the confidence you needed to move forward?
I talked to a lot of people when I started thinking about actually quitting. I'd had fleeting thoughts at various times, but when I became sick, quitting seemed like the only way to end my misery. It felt like the only solution, and staying seemed intolerable. I couldn't imagine finishing my classwork - I dreaded it all. Another student told me she had quit a program before and felt it took an enormous amount of courage to stop something everyone expects you to finish and succeed at. That helped me reframe my decision in a positive way. When I told my acupuncturist (also a female small business owner), she congratulated me. I was puzzled. Congratulate me for dropping out? What's that about? She said, "No, for moving on from something that no longer serves you." Oh! When I thought about it that way, leaving the program seemed liberating and the right thing to do.
Who/what inspires you today?
People who work for themselves! Especially women who have small businesses. It seems so complicated to get everything running - and legal! I know it is possible because of the many women who figure out how to make an income for themselves doing something they love.
The delight and freedom of not having a boss. When I taught high school, I resented having to follow policies that didn't make sense to me or were counter-intuitive. I wanted to do things my way, even if that led to mistakes. I wanted the schools to be better than they were, right away. I guess it's fair to say that I don't have a lot of patience for bureaucracy. If I can't be creative and independent in my work, I start to resent it. Right now, I have perhaps too much freedom with my days, but on the other hand, it's very fortunate that I have this time to recover and do work I love.
Also my father-in-law. People ask me what he's going to do with his time, or what is on his bucket list. I say that he lived his life his whole life - he never waited for the perfect time to check off anything from a list! He goes to theater, he takes multiple long vacations a year, he eats nice meals, he goes out for lunch by himself every day. Nothing extravagant, but he didn't need to jump out of planes or travel to exotic locales to feel he had lived. So when he found out about the tumor, he didn't feel he had to do go to a bunch of crazy stuff. He was sad to leave a job that he'd loved for 43 years, but he hadn't postponed real living.
What are you dreaming about now?
Having my own business I can run out of my basement, which is currently under renovation. I'm also working on a website to provide resources for teachers and students. I created a bunch of videos and audio recordings - in addition to rubrics, lesson plans, and activities - while I was teaching, and I'd like to share them for others to use. Creating materials was one of my favorite parts of being a teacher, and it makes me so happy when other teachers and their students can learn using my materials.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
It's probably not actually advice, but the idea that moving on and trusting yourself is courageous. I was thinking it was selfish to quit, which made me feel worse about myself. But doing something different, taking a risk, and putting aside others' opinions does take some courage. (In my case, I think there was more desperation than courage, but thinking of quitting as courageous certainly helped me put aside my worries.)
What do you know now that you wish you would have known when you started?
I've only just started, so I'm not sure I've learned that much. It certainly takes more discipline than I anticipated to make opportunities for myself. I keep waiting to be motivated, but that doesn't get me anywhere. I wish I had known that it was going to be difficult to feel confident in decisions I make on my own. I don't have a department chair or principal to go to when I'm not sure how to approach a situation with a parent, for example. Not having colleagues is difficult, too. I need to make time to have conversations with adults; otherwise, the whole day can go by and I'll find I've only talked to teenagers and my dog!
What encouragement can you offer someone who wants to make a change but is apprehensive?
Don't put off being happy. I don't mean superficial happiness, but the deep kind of joy and contentment that comes from feeling competent and productive. Sometimes when you're stuck in a job you don't like, you don't even realize how draining it is. Also, I've learned you sometimes need someone to back you up (major gratitude for husband!) when you take a risk or leave a crummy situation.
Also, it was hard for me to think that I would be disappointing my advisor and others by quitting. A fellow student reminded me that I should do what's best for me, and that my advisors and professors would be fine. I knew that leaving a program mid-semester isn't convenient for anyone, and is disappointing for the people who invested in me, but I still felt so strongly that I had to do it. Everything I was doing at the time was so anti-me. It felt so wrong, but I am glad I was able to do what was right for me in the end. For a long time, I kept thinking that it was fine that I wasn't happy because eventually my work would pay off and lead me to something that did make me happy. Now I know that doesn't have to be true and shouldn't be. Of course, there are aspects of any job that are not as exciting as others, but that's very different from being miserable all day, every day.
What book(s) have provided guidance or inspiration for your New Beginning?
I don't think I've read any how-to books about starting over or anew, but I have read a number of books about teaching reading. I listen to the podcast Being Boss, which is both inspiring and practical. I've also watched online lessons about how to use MailChimp and HTML. Now that the beginning is here, I'm focused on learning as much as I can about how to have my own business and website, as well as teaching reading and writing.