Two professionals leave their careers to become middle school teachers

GREENVILLE  — This is the story of two men who changed horses in mid-stream. Not only that, but they  switched to a nag that most others shy away from.

Joel S. Brandon and Jay Tierney left 20-year professional careers to become middle school teachers. Both enrolled in a one-year graduate program at Clemson University and both interned at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. They heard the horror stories about teaching in grades sixth through eighth, when hormones are raging and kids are caught between childhood and adolescence. They heard middle school called a wasteland, the weak link between elementary school and high school. They chose to teach those students because, they said, it is an occasion to have a positive impact on developing personae.

“It’s a dynamic age to teach, but I cannot deny that I had some misgivings. It was a dramatic change,” said Brandon, a former lawyer in private practice. “But my experience here at a Catholic school reinforced my confidence in that decision.”

Brandon is a Methodist who has a son, Dylan, in a public middle school. For the attorney, the change was both in careers and in experiencing a different faith environment, and that made Dylan intensely curious.

“Every day, my son asks what we did in school today. I tell him we sat around praying in black robes,” Brandon said jokingly.

Tierney is a Catholic convert who was an executive in textiles, reaching the level of vice-president of a multi-million dollar company. Then the industry changed, and he started traveling more. He decided he didn’t want to leave his young family so much, so he turned to local sales. Tierney was selling Land Rovers when a convergence of factors led him straight to the classroom door.

“One day, I asked myself: ‘Am I doing anything with my life that even remotely resembles what God wants me to do?’ I was always teaching in sales and marketing anyway, so I began to think about teaching as a career,” Tierney said.

Some months after that, an ad appeared in The Miscellany about the new middle school at St. Joseph. A relative and a friend both clipped the ad and sent it to Tierney. He went to the school with his bachelor’s degree in English from Brown and inquired about a teaching position. The headmaster told him that 30 years out of college was too long without some refresher training. Clemson was just beginning a new program to train middle school teachers. He enrolled and interned at SJCS. One year later, Tierney had a master’s degree and a certificate in middle school education.

At that exact time, the middle school at SJCS was expanding, and there was an opening in Tierney’s specialty. He got the job and still can’t believe his luck.

“It was bizarre serendipity, all these things coming together like that,” Tierney said. “It had to be some kind of divine plan.”

Brandon, who finished up his teaching practicum at SJCS in November, is in the same program as Tierney. The businessman and the lawyer were both among the oldest students in the first and second classes the program has offered, respectively. Brandon found that his months working in a Catholic school have had an impact on his life out of the classroom.

“I go to church more now. The Catholic religion is a vital component of this school. They make it so that you live your faith every day, all day. I even bought a catechism,” Brandon said.

He said that teaching in a Catholic school was a positive influence on his Protestantism.

“And I don’t mean it as a cross-cultural experience, either. Working here has deepened my faith,” he said.

Tierney’s Catholicism has been a major part of his life for years. By changing horses, he said, he has found his purpose in life.

“I know now that I’m doing exactly what I want to do and what God wants me to do,” Tierney said.