‘I thought I was done, 100%, forever’
An interview with a teacher who quit and returned to the classroom
In the June 1 newsletter, I revisited some of the clearest, most incisive, and most courageous letters I’d read from South Carolina public school teachers who quit the profession. I think of these letters as a gift and a warning from public servants who didn’t owe us a word of explanation but gave it to us anyway.
Probably the best-known letter of the bunch was the one from Sariah McCall, a Charleston County elementary school teacher who left her job in the fall of 2018 and published her resignation letter via Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post column in April 2019. You can read the whole thing here if you like, but this was the part that always stuck with me:
[T]he only things keeping me from resigning until now were the love I have for my students, the love I have for the act of teaching, and the heavy guilt I feel for my children being negatively impacted by this in any way: emotionally or academically. However, I cannot set myself on fire to keep someone else warm.
After I sent the newsletter, I received a Facebook message from Sariah — now Sariah Miller, 31 — with a bit of unexpected good news: She’s teaching again.
I asked if she would be interested in doing a quick phone interview, and she obliged. She had some hard-won insights on boundaries, passion, and advocacy, and I’m so happy to share them with you below. This transcript has been edited slightly for brevity.
Brutal South: The last time we spoke, you had very publicly walked away from the profession of teaching and you were waiting tables at a bistro in Savannah, Georgia. Tell me about what you’re doing for work now?
Sariah Miller: Now I am back in the classroom. I teach elementary school theatre at Heard Elementary; we’re a STEAM-certified elementary school in Savannah. I taught second grade for two years again before transitioning into this role as a fine arts teacher.
BS: OK, so you weren’t gone long then!
SM: No, I quit in November 2018 and then by August 2019 I was back.
BS: When you left teaching back in 2018, did you think it was for good, or did you leave open the possibility you might return to education one day?
SM: Oh I thought I was done, 100%, forever.
BS: What changed?
SM: Everything that went public with my quitting and all the interviews and everything after that … it did resonate with so many people. And especially speaking at the SC for Ed All Out May 1st rally [in 2019] — knowing that as an educator I was able to relate to the education struggle and what everyone was going through, I just felt like I would make more of an impact if I was still able to understand that struggle. That if I was outside of education trying to change it, I would lose touch with what other teachers were going through. So if I really wanted to change it, I had to get back into it.
BS: When you shared your resignation letter, like you said, it struck a chord with a lot of teachers. One thing that stood out to me was the way you talked about how you had this great love for the work and the kids, but you also talked about the flip side of that, which is the idealism, the guilt, and even a sense of martyrdom that keeps people in the profession long after they would have quit otherwise. How would you say your worldview or your relationship to work has changed since then?
SM: Oh, that’s a hard question. It’s weird because it’s still like that — you can see it, there is still this sense of “You need to do it for the kids, go ahead and get over it, this is just part of your job.” But I also think that, especially since the pandemic, some people — not everyone — but some people have been able to realize, “Oh, these teachers are actually doing a lot more than I realized.” And I think a lot of educators have started — or at least myself, I’ve had stronger boundaries since the pandemic especially. They’re taking care of themselves a little bit more. And it’s not something you can self-care your way out of, because it’s definitely a problem, but I have to find the right support system and be a little more selfish if I’m gonna sustain being in this profession …
I know if I quit or if I died, my job would be posted within a week. But my family wouldn’t be able to replace me and my friends wouldn’t be able to replace me, and that’s shifted my perspective too. I’m not letting the propaganda of teacher martyrdom take over my view of the profession anymore.
BS: So you’re also in a different school district, different state, and I’m sure teaching in Georgia public schools is no walk in the park either, but are there some material differences in your working conditions there compared to what you experienced in Charleston County?
SM: Oh man, I would not teach in Charleston again, that’s for sure. Georgia definitely has a lot of issues, and Savannah-Chatham County has its issues as well, but I have found the level of support that I have at my school, from my colleagues, from the families that go to my school and my administration is not anything like I’ve had in the past. So that alone has made a huge difference, just knowing that families I’m working with are supportive, my administration is supportive, and my colleagues.
They knew when I came to Heard who I was. It was a very public thing, and knowing that, they were excited that I was there and not immediately ostracizing me for being very public and then coming back to education. So that’s been really great. There are still a lot of issues with the state and a lot of issues with the district, but overall I think the support has been the biggest thing … You can’t really buy that or fund that.
BS: School districts everywhere are chasing teachers away — especially these last few years, but well before that — chasing them away faster than they can hire new ones out of college. If you could give some advice to school administrators and district leaders on what it takes to bring an educator like you back into the classroom, what would you say?
SM: Yeah, because we’re bleeding teachers at a rapid rate, and we’ve had that same issue here too, where education students are getting job offers before they even graduate because we have to fill that gap … I think that administrations and districts and at the state level, they need to get out of their teachers’ way and know that they are the professionals who are with these kids day in and day out. Listen to what they need instead of continuing to make decisions for them. That’s still a pattern that we see in Georgia, in South Carolina, in Florida, in all these different states where everyone wants to make a choice for us instead of with us. And maybe reassessing where all of these mandates are coming from, and putting more trust back into us to know how to do our jobs.
BS: That’s such a common thing I hear from people who quit: “I was not treated as the professional that I am.”
SM: Right, it’s very demeaning to have all this advanced education — because most teachers do have masters’ degrees and additional certifications and all this extra schooling on top of what they had to do to become a teacher in the first place, and then it’s like, great, now use this canned curriculum, or we’re going to tell you to add more to your school day but we’re not giving you extra time to do it, just make it work. I could have made it work, but you didn’t ask what I needed, or you asked and I told you and you didn’t listen.
BS: Thanks so much for talking, Sariah. Is there anything else you wanted to share?
SM: I’m much happier now, which is great, and I don’t want to invalidate anybody who resonated with what I said the first time, because I meant it and I still mean it. But coming back was the best choice for me, and it was that change in district, in grade level, in schools, all of those changes and then finding the right support system that made it work better for me. That doesn’t mean that everybody needs to come back or that it is invalidating what I said the first time. I don’t want anybody to feel like that.
Now for some cop news
Here’s a quick update on the warrantless mass surveillance plan that I wrote about in last week’s newsletter. On Thursday, June 9, North Charleston City Council voted unanimously to pass the city budget, including roughly $2.5 million to buy videocameras and automatic license plate readers and equip a 24/7 surveillance hub to be overseen by a police department with a record of racial profiling.
In doing this, City Council not only ignored our coalition’s petition with 400+ signatures, the joint statement we released, and the overwhelming opposition they heard during the public comment period from a diverse group of church leaders, activists, and residents of affected neighborhoods — they chided us for being rude to the cops. The Mayor Pro Tem, Jerome Heyward, told us we had set the officers present in the council chambers "on fire" with our actions. He also challenged us to unseat every sitting councilmember when they come up for re-election next year if we disagreed with their votes.
Thursday night was ludicrous, but it was par for the course with a city government under longtime Mayor Keith Summey that runs on personal favors and chafes at the slightest public pressure. We aren’t done here. If you signed the petition and entered your email address (still open for signatures if you’re interested), Charleston DSA will keep you in the loop about next steps as we push for transparency and accountability.
Brutal South is a free weekly newsletter about class struggle, education, parenting, and religion in the American South. It’s written by me, Paul Bowers, a dad and former local news reporter. If you would like to support my work and get access to the complete archives plus some cool stickers I’ll send you in the mail, paid subscriptions are $5/month.