When Sierra Pettway started her first year of teaching nine months ago, she didn't give much thought to risks that come with the job.
But in December, Pettway got a rude awakening when she taped two students together by their forearms in an attempt to help them get along. After self-reporting the incident to the children's parents, Pettway was charged with two counts of willfull abuse of a child and faced the possibility of up to 20 years in prison.
"For a person that's never been in trouble before, I was just taken aback, saddened, like any normal person would be," said Pettway, 25, a sixth-grade science teacher at Phenix City Intermediate School. "I don't even know what words to describe it. It was just bad, something I had in the back of my mind every day."
On Tuesday, Pettway's burden was lifted when she heard that a Russell County Grand Jury "no billed' her case, which means she won't be indicted. She was placed on administrative leave for a few days after the incident, but allowed to return after Christmas. Now that the case is over, she can keep her job.
Pettway was in sixth period when one of her co-workers showed her an article about the grand jury's decision.
She said she was elated, relieved and thankful to God, but couldn't fully express her feelings because she was still with her students. Later that afternoon, she sat down for an interview with a Ledger-Enquirer reporter, all smiles, and ready to celebrate at Zaxby's.
Pettway spoke on a variety of topics and her quotes were compiled according to subject. They were edited for length. Here's how she described the ups and downs of her first year of teaching:
Why she became a teacher:
"Well, my mom has been a (para-professional) probably ever since I was born. We're originally from New York. So, we moved down here and I went off to school and that's what I decided I wanted to do.
My mom is the older version of me. We teach. We babysit. We do it all. We're just always with kids. And I figured what better way than to teach them? Train them up in the way they should go and when they get old they shall never stray."
How she ended up teaching in Phenix City after graduating from Alabama A&M University in 2011:
"I wanted to stay in Huntsville because I had gotten accustomed to that and being on my own. But my mom took ill. So, I came home and I was blessed to find a job.
It was home, so I stayed and I truly enjoyed this year despite (what happened.) This was a wonderful first year."
What she expected her first job to be like:
"I just thought positive. I didn't go in with any pre-conceived notions of stress, paperwork, grades. I didn't think of any of that. I just thought: Classroom, kids, fun, teach. And that was it.
It was all of that and more. Overwhelming. But the kids, they keep your passion going. There's always something to learn on both ends. Teacher and student."
Why she taped the two students together:
"My intentions were for them to get along, not just inside the classroom, but to see the bigger picture.
It was poor judgment, and could've been handled better. You live and you learn. They're still my babies. Kids will be kids and lessons will be learned -- for adults and children."
What she personally learned from the experience:
"Use better judgment. Stick to the book. Don't get so caught up in the moment."
Why she contacted the children's parents:
"My mother always told me, 'I'd rather you tell me than for me to hear it from somebody else.' So, that's where my mindset went, and that was pretty much it. I didn't have any ill intentions. So, I didn't feel the need to hide anything."
How she handled being treated like a criminal:
"Being that I'm a praying woman, I just had to keep the faith and press on. I know that the Lord won't put any more on me than I could handle and that's what I carry."
How she felt seeing her mug shot in the news:
"The image was ugly, I will say that. But it's TV, it's news, nothing different from what we see with any other story. So, it's kind of one of those -- hate to say -- do-what-you-got-to-do situations. They (news media) got a job to do, too."
How the charges affected her students:
"They were all sad, tears. I was put on administrative leave, so I didn't get to have their Christmas party and they didn't get their treats and all that good stuff. So the end-of-the-year party has to be awesome. They're already asking.
My kids want to know if I'm going to seventh grade with them and I said, 'No. I think I'm going to let you grow up by yourself from here on out. I'll only be a building away.' I just love my kids -- their demeanor, their characteristics, their attitudes at times, just them overall. I love my kids, all 104, maybe 106 now. I think we got a couple of new students."
Where she found strength:
"Everybody let me know they were praying for me and there was just a lot of support, from my church, here at the school, family at home, long distance, school back in Huntsville, all of them were very supportive."
How she thinks the criminal charges will impact her future:
"If the Lord can do this (rescue her from indictment), we're going to roll with that. He can take care of the rest. He doesn't do half jobs. So, I'm going to let him take care of it all.
We come from a long family line of pray-ers and I'm usually the one to do the prayers at dinners and family functions. It (her prayer life) is truly stronger now than it has ever been."
What she wants people to know about who she really is:
"I can't change their perceptions, their thought patterns, how they feel. I just want them to know that I'm not a bad person. Things happen. People make mistakes and I, like so many others, just deserve a second chance.
Students, for example, the first time they get in trouble, who wants that phone call home or write-up immediately?
We teach them, 'OK, let's learn from this first time and let's do better next time so we don't have to have the same outcome or for you to have the same reaction.' We do a lot of second chances in sixth grade."