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Paul Tierney: The Splendor, the Wonder & the Passing of the Lore

Kathy Smith

Paul Tierney retired from General Electric after 34 years of service, ready for something new. Teaching, he thought, seemed like a nice way to move toward a life of travel and retirement.

“The principal from a local Catholic high school called the day before Labor Day,” he explains. “She said a math teacher was seriously ill—would I be able to come over and teach math for the first quarter?” At the time, the teachers at the school were threatening a strike. The principal was concerned about Tierney crossing the picket line.

Now, Tierney was no stranger to conflict. He’d spent three years of active service in the army back in the mid-sixties working out of White Sands, New Mexico. “There were missiles being fired all around me.” Later at GE, he’d worked on classified software development for satellite programs. Teaching math to teenagers almost seemed like a vacation.

“It was the hardest I ever worked,” Tierney explains, still reeling as he recalls the experience years later. “I ended up with 140 kids, 5 sections of Algebra II with 30 kids in a class, a home room, cafeteria duty, and a study hall. I was up some nights until one or two in the morning grading papers. I broke up a fist fight between two girls,” he exclaims. “Chalk was being thrown at me. And kids were tracked.” Tracking kids was a distressing aspect of the experience for Tierney. “The kids who were in Track Four were essentially written off. I couldn’t look those kids in the eye and think there was no hope for them. That wasn’t a solution.”

The Invisible Man

A few weeks into his new job, Tierney noticed a student in his classroom that he had not seen before, yet the student had been on his seating chart and had been marked present each day. “I had been literally blind to this kid for three weeks,” says Tierney. “He was a kid who never raised his hand or talked to his neighbor. Because he wasn’t a contributor or a challenge, he simply disappeared. It was a revelation that there could be a group of students that simply vanished. I felt I had to fix that. I thought, ‘I can never let that happen again to any student in my room.’”

Tierney left the school at the end of his one-quarter contract, but he didn’t leave teaching. After a small break to catch his breath, he answered a call from Shipley, this time with a request to teach one section of physics.

A Culture of Kindness

It was one of those small things that started off his experience right. “Before I even started work I got my first taste of the culture at Shipley,” he says. “During the negotiations, my wife’s mother passed away and [Head of School] Steve Piltch sent flowers.” He pauses to note the simplicity of the gesture. “I hadn’t even started working yet and already I felt a part of the community.” Over the next two years, Tierney’s course-load grew gradually, by design and by happenstance, until he found himself working full time for the next five years.

Passing of the Lore

After taking some time off to travel the world with his wife, Tierney is back to teaching part time again—focusing on Newtonian Mechanics and Astronomy. He connects on a very personal level with his students, relishing the exchange of ideas and perspectives. “Seniors here have a pretty good idea about what they’re interested in. When you sit down and talk to them, you can have serious conversations.”

In particular, Tierney enjoys passing on the lore. “For me the lore is physics and astronomy. I love these subjects, so if I can help students have half the enjoyment that I have experienced, if I can help them see the patterns, and help them with an insight so that when they’re 30 or 35 years old and a little voice says, ‘Mommy, Daddy, why does this happen?’ they can remember back to Shipley physics and think, ‘I remember Mr. Tierney talking about that,’ and pass it on, I’ve done my job. To me, that’s why I teach.”

The Sea and Sky

Tierney’s love of astronomy began as an amateur’s passion, a rolling out of the blanket on a warm summer’s evening to marvel at the inky sky. “With astronomy, I’m focused on the astrophysics as much as I’m focused on the splendor and the wonder—the where did this all come from and the why are we here,” he says. “It’s just the excitement of the completely unknowable realm and the joy of trying to learn just a little bit about it.”

The same can be said for his love of the sea. Tierney is a scuba diver. Having logged 330 dives, he would assert that his deep affection for the ocean is similar to his love of the night sky. “You go fifty or sixty feet down and it’s like nothing you see on the earth’s surface. The coral. The fish. The terrain. It’s just amazing.”

Finding the Balance

Tierney’s found a beautiful balance between work and play. Perhaps someday he’ll add a little more travel to the equation, but for right now, teaching a course or two at Shipley and exploring the wonders of the world have proven deeply satisfying. The first to admit that life is never easy to map out, Tierney says he is a “bug for inspirational quotes,” and he shares them with his students. With the nod of someone who has lived life long enough to learn the truth of these statements, he quotes them from memory:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
—John F. Kennedy.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
—Gandalf the Gray.
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.