Anne Manuel: from human rights defender to high school teacher, making a difference in people’s lives

Anne Manuel
Anne and her daughter

Anne Manuel has always valued human interaction and placed great importance on helping others realize their potential. This is what initially propelled her into human rights work and today makes her a high school teacher who – according to her students[i] –  “is patient and caring…presents her lessons in an interesting and informative way…and is tolerant and open-minded of others’ opinions”.

Albeit rewarding, the path from Deputy Director of the Americas’ Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW) to public high school teacher was not an easy one.

After graduating from Wesleyan University with a degree in 1980, Manuel married and moved to New York City where she worked temp jobs and interned at Inter Press Service, an international news agency.  Moving to Washington, DC to work for Inter Press, she spent 3 years covering international and human rights issues, a beat that became more than just a news story: “I figured out pretty quickly that I wanted to be an advocate and not an observer of human rights.”

So she left journalism and jumped into the field, joining HRW as a specialist on Latin America. She focused on research and writing and gradually moved up the ranks, becoming an Associate Director and finally Deputy Director of the Americas’ Division. Manuel travelled to countries where basic rights were routinely violated to uncover harrowing stories that she and her colleagues brought to the halls of power … Congress, the executive branch, the UN … and placed on the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post in an effort to stop the abuses and bring their perpetrators to justice. “While we often stared evil in the face, we were endlessly inspired by the determination of victims and their relatives. I got to work with human rights advocates in the field and my colleagues at HRW who were among the most committed, passionate, intelligent and creative professionals I’ve ever met.  HRW was a great home for me spiritually.”

And yet, despite being professionally and personally fulfilled, Manuel began to experience a nagging anxiety. “At 35, I started having a crisis about travel. I was geographically torn in two directions. When I was at home, I never wanted to leave. When I was in the field I felt like I needed to stay longer. I was profoundly attached to my work but also my family, and had a sense I was perpetually incapable of fulfilling my commitments, particularly to those in the field, many of whom risked their lives every day defending human rights.”

And yet still highly committed to HRW, Manuel truly wanted to be in the field more to do a better job: “The tension was immense. It was like walking a tightrope.” Eventually the pressure of staying away from family was too great and she stepped back.  She worked out an arrangement with her “very supportive boss” so that she no longer had to travel.  The immediate relief of finding balance was replaced by the realization that, with no travel or field work, she didn’t feel she was doing the job justice. “I started to become the person who watches the clock, and while I was no longer in crisis and still felt passionate about my work, I must admit there is nothing quite like the fire you get from interviewing victims and survivors of human rights violations in the field.”

And so, after almost 14 years working in human rights, Manuel decided to make a radical change.She had always been attracted to working in public schools, finding the diversity of the student body appealing, akin to a “mini-world cauldron”. A well-meaning friend tried to turn her off the idea of teaching by recommending some books exposing the underbelly of the public school system, but instead Manuel found herself even more intrigued. And after learning about Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, which has a diverse student body from Central America, Africa, and Asia amongst others, Manuel knew she had found her next calling.

Undeterred by the fact that it would take 15 years of teaching salary to compensate for what she was earning at HRW, Manuel launched herself into a Masters in teaching at Johns Hopkins, continuing to work part-time at HRW. Her husband and daughters were supportive and her employer incredibly flexible in terms of letting her work part time and later as a consultant. “I am so grateful to them for being fantastic colleagues and helping me with my transition.”

Manuel started teaching US history to freshmen, inspired by her favorite high school teacher who exposed her to apartheid and other injustices through a course in world history.  At first she was not confident that she had made the right decision: “Little things would take an inordinate amount of energy. Being around teenagers can be trying but it can also be invigorating. So many of them are eager to learn, vibrant, always on the cusp of new discovery!”

And drawing on her old career to build her new one, Manuel established an International Human Rights course at the school.  The course attracts a lot of students who are the children of immigrants, and several of her former colleagues, and even current students’ parents, participate as guest speakers (i.e., one father was a Burmese activist, another the sister of a “disappeared” from Argentina). As her students point out, Manuel builds understanding through activities and bringing history to life.

Sometimes she misses her former colleagues, the limelight, congressional meetings, and constant interaction with high profile media: “My dirty little secret is the ego boost I got from working at HRW.” As a teacher, Manuel feels almost completely anonymous and this has required some adjustment. “At HRW, I was working on issues that affected a lot of people but only in a small way, while teaching has the potential to have a big effect, even if it is on a few young individuals. I’ve been lucky as both careers offer the chance to make a difference.” And at 55 years, it seems she has just begun to make her mark, at least she hopes she has. “I will teach until I can’t go anymore. I just get so much juice out of my job.”

Anne Manuel’s lessons for a smooth transition
  • If you need an advanced degree, consider pursuing it part-time so you can continue to work.
  • Don’t let early doubts stand in your way. Its natural to second guess yourself when you’re leaving something stable. Listen to the voice that put you on the path towards change in the first place.
  • I had a lot of lucky breaks, I won’t deny it. I am glad I had the strong urge to become a teacher once I knew I needed to change careers. Some people search for ages and can’t find that strong desire. If it’s there, heed it!


Have you ever left a career you loved because of other commitments?

[i] Rate My Teachers. [Internet] Accessed 3/24/2014




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