Marine veteran soars as middle school teacher and coach

Kelly NorrellWest Knoxville

What do you get when a U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant becomes a middle school PE and wellness teacher?

In retired Gunnery Sgt. Tim Sands, 44, at Bearden Middle School, you get an educator with the qualities that powered a 20-year military career.  Gunnery sergeant is a notably demanding and respected position.

Sands instructs

Sands instructs a class of sixth, seventh and eight graders in basketball

At Bearden Middle, where he has taught three years, Sands manages five sections of physical education and wellness  and coaches the track and field team. An athlete who played football, baseball and basketball in high school, Sands encourages youth as they find their own sports.

Sands demonstrates skills

Sands demonstrates basketball handling skills.

“Those years of being a gunny and mentoring young people put teaching in my blood,” Sands said. “I focus on teaching kids to be a leader and take on new challenges. Sometimes they don’t think it’s possible. I teach them nothing is impossible. It’s only impossible if they quit.”

When Sands graduated from Carter High School in 1991, he decided see the world. He joined the Marines, the military branch he regarded as “top notch, the best of the best.”

From 1991-2012, Sands served in such posts as Camp Lejeune, N.C., Al Anbar Province, Iraq, Camp Fuji in Japan, Quantico, Va., and Harlingen, Texas. He trained and mentored enlisted men, advised officers, specialized in military logistics, and functioned as operations chief of his unit.

“The gunnery sergeant helps the camp jell,” he said.

He always had the support of his wife, Tracy, and their children, Philip and Kristen, now adults, and Brett, a high school junior. The family endured the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 up close, when Sands was stationed in Quantico near Washington, D.C.

Retiring in 2012 with a bachelor’s in education already in hand, Sands worked three years as PE teacher at Chilhowee and Sunnyview schools, while he earned a master’s in exercise science, PE and wellness at Tennessee Tech University.

Students answer questions

Students answer questions on basketball technique before practicing skills

Sands is now busy preparing kids for the future at Bearden Middle School, where more than 1,300 students learn athletic skills and wellness principles in the framework of the International Baccalaureate program. He teaches them to try things outside their comfort zone, whether it’s throwing the discus or dealing with pounding stress.

Sometimes he helps them to slow down and break problems into small steps. “When you get stressed, you start overthinking. The stuff going on in your head is what is causing you stress. Just focus on what’s going on right now,” Sands said.

Sometimes the focus is to reach high. “I used to think kids want rewards and to be patted on the back. But they want to be challenged. If they are having a hard time, you remember: No kid is trying to fail or make mistakes.  They are so hard on themselves, a coach coming down on them won’t help.”

“Gunnery Sgt. Sands is an invaluable part of our staff,” said Michael Toth, Bearden Middle principal.

“He works diligently to prepare for his students and assist his colleagues. He is driven to success which compels those around him to better work. He is an excellent teacher and typifies the marine motto ‘Semper Fidelis’ which means ‘Always Faithful.’”

Sands said he wants the same for his students as he does for his own children. “I want their happiness and success. I want them to reach their goals. I encourage them to shoot high. Nothing is impossible.”

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