This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of School Ties.
by Kyle Slavin
Standing atop the Science Block on a warm spring morning, Head of School Bob Snowden takes in a view of the Richmond Road campus he’s never seen.
“I’ve always wanted to see the school from up here,” he says with a smile as he slowly scans the 360 degrees around him. There is no evidence of the changes under Bob’s watch more tangible than this view. Had he come up here in 1995, the school he would have seen would look very different.
But appearances don’t tell the complete story.
While beautiful, this view is simply cosmetic evidence of a school that has changed dramatically over the last 22 years. The facades of these buildings obstruct the view of the biggest changes that have impacted what matters most at our school: the students, the teachers and the education. This is the St. Michaels University School we know today that Bob Snowden helped build.
When he started teaching French at Appleby College in 1975, Bob already had a good handle on boarding school life. He had spent his high school years living and studying at that very school, excelling as an athlete (football, tennis, hockey, squash and cricket, eventually playing the last of these for Team Canada at university) and school leader (being named Head Boy in Grade 12).
“Boarding schools were very different then,” he says. “There were two diametrically opposed motivations for sending your son or daughter to boarding school: either they needed straightening out or they needed the rich environment and opportunities.” Fortunately for him, he attended for the latter reason.
“I was lucky to have some good teachers who really struck a chord,” he recalls. “The good teachers were the ones who were dedicated to their students. They were teachers; they were coaches; they were all-rounders who really transformed you as a person.”
In hindsight, Bob says even as a student he really valued the teachers who put in the time and effort to ensure their students received a well-rounded education.
He drew on their example when he started working at Appleby, a job he planned on being only temporary “while I figured out what I really wanted to do.” Before long, he realized he was passionate about teaching.
“I didn’t have any formal training, but I was fortunate I had a headmaster at the time who thought I had potential as a teacher and gave me really good advice and opportunities.”
The standout opportunity, Bob says, came five years into his career when he went on a year-long teacher exchange in 1980 to a boarding school on the other side of the country. Bob spent a year teaching at St. Michaels University School, a school that became co-ed two years earlier and was still recovering from financial struggles that led to amalgamation less than a decade before.
The strongest impression he was left with from his time at SMUS was that Headmaster John Schaffter cared a great deal about hiring the right faculty.
“He was really making the school better: he put a high value on great teachers, and it was clear that these teachers were going to make a big difference at the school,” Bob says.
In 1995, Bob was headhunted and offered two Head of School positions: one at St. Michaels University School; the other at a day school in Houston, Texas.
“What attracted me to SMUS right at the outset was I had had such a good experience the first time around, and most of those great teachers who were here in 1980–81 were still here,” Bob says. He adds that, on a personal level, he also chose the school where his background made the most sense. “I had just spent 16 months as Acting Head of School at Ridley College, which was a co-ed school, day and boarding, and it was a big, old, established school—just like SMUS.” By this time, he was also a father to two boys, Scott and Graham, and felt SMUS would be a better fit for his kids.
When he arrived in the summer of 1995, the traditional Head of School role at boarding schools was changing as the schools’ priorities changed. For Bob, that meant fundraising and facilities. But with the strong academic program still at the heart of the school, he needed to ensure that great teachers continued to thrive and be able to help great students.
“I came into the role conscious of what I had learned the previous year as acting head: students have to be at the centre of all of the decisions, followed closely by the staff. That may sound very obvious, but at a lot of schools that wasn’t happening.”
Bob created one of the first Director of Academics roles in the country. “We are a school first and foremost, so having someone dedicated to supporting teachers, supporting the curriculum and building up the academic program was important.”
He hired Tom Matthews, now Head of School at St. George’s School in Vancouver, to help ensure the strength of our academic program.
“Bob ensured that SMUS was constantly moving forward, developing new programs and enhancing its instructional practices,” Matthews says. “On a personal note, I am indebted to Bob for the faith that he placed in me. In my view, he is the smartest and most strategic Head in the country. Bob never allowed any obstacle to prevent him from achieving his overriding goal of making SMUS the very best school possible, for the benefit of its students, both present and future.”
Over the course of Bob’s time at SMUS, this focus has allowed the school to build an exceptional academic program that has helped the school remain a leading-edge institution.
Ask any SMUS teacher and they’ll tell you that under Bob students could get whatever support and resources necessary to be successful in class. As well, Bob put high value on professional development, knowing that teachers who hone their craft positively affect their students.
“I think he would say the teachers are his legacy,” says math teacher Ms. Bernadette Abrioux. “Bob knew what he wanted for SMUS long before I came to the school: he wanted it to be the best it could be and he expected his staff to reach the students in whatever way works. He knows the value of teachers forming strong relationships with students and he expects his staff to do that.”
“Hiring good teachers has been the most important thing I do,” Bob says. “The school exists for its students, and the students are at the centre of it all, but the teachers are the key cogs in the wheel.”
When Bob taught at SMUS for a year in 1980, another aspect of SMUS life left an impression: “The facilities were very poor. The school had to move out of one of the buildings—the old Harvey House—because it was going to be condemned.”
In 1995, he arrived at a school that had made only slight progress in improving its physical space over the 15 years since he had taught here. A new Middle School, Science Block and gymnasium had been built, but there was still a long way to go. The previous headmasters (Schaffter and Rob Wilson) focused on building the fundamentals of the school: teachers, curriculum and students.
Bob came in knowing the SMUS Board of Governors expected him to make significant progress in improving the physical spaces. Although he would have preferred to focus his efforts elsewhere, it was evident new facilities were required.
“The facilities were literally falling down. It wasn’t that there was a desire for wonderful facilities that swept through the school—we just had to do something,” Bob recalls.
Coming from a boarding school himself, Bob knew that schools could do a much better job at making the facilities more inspiring and nurturing places to be. Working with architect Paul Merrick on building plans allowed SMUS to build those inspiring and nurturing facilities.
“Boarding schools now are much more like a home away from home. … When alumni come back and look at our current facilities, they think students now are a bunch of softies,” he says. “When I was a student, boarding schools were quite regimented, there were strict rules, and the unspoken culture of survival of the fittest really prevailed.”
Under Bob’s watch, the school has been a construction zone for nearly as many years as it hasn’t. Three major buildings have been completed (Crothall Centre in 2003, Schaffter Hall in 2004, Monkman Athletic Complex phases 1 and 2 in 2005 and 2008, respectively) and a fourth, Sun Centre, is under construction. As well, many of the buildings have been renovated and upgraded, including the Junior School, boarding houses, Chapel and, most notably, School House and the Snowden Library, which was named last year to honour Bob and his wife Joan for their contributions to the school.
The goal with the facilities that Bob has helped shepherd to fruition is longevity: build buildings that will last and the school won’t need to undergo major facility upgrades again for a long while.
“We tried to conceive of most of the buildings we could imagine needing or wanting, and we wanted superior buildings that would endure for decades, if not centuries. All the buildings we’ve built will be standing in 100 years. That creates a sense of permanence and commitment to the school that says, ‘The learning and experiences you have here are going to endure.’”
Building Financial Aid and Endowment
“When I started I was told, ‘Our school has never raised much money. We’re not like other schools. We can’t raise money at SMUS. Victoria’s different.’ I couldn’t believe I was hearing this,” Bob remembers.
Independent schools rely on fundraising to help make students’ experiences that much better. Money raised by the school goes to a variety of initiatives that Bob focused on, including building new facilities, providing unique learning opportunities, running extra-curricular programs and, perhaps most important, awarding financial aid and scholarships.
Bob recognized the potential for fundraising within our community. Despite the school’s history of not being a fundraiser, he managed to use the school’s story and strengths to ensure endowment and philanthropy grew during his time as Head.
“A good education has breadth of all different kinds: academic exposure, character development through sports and leadership, but also breadth through its socio-economic culture. If you’re going to have a good education, you need to go to a school with a spectrum of students—ethnically, economically, geographically,” he says. “I remember in my first year or two, we gave out about $200,000 in financial aid. This year we gave out $2.3 million.”
In the last 22 years, the geographic diversity on campus has grown exponentially too. Bob guesses that when he started at SMUS, we had students from five or six countries. This past school year, we had students from 24 different countries.
The growth of endowment at SMUS isn’t exclusive to financial aid. Bob spent a lot of time focused on building relationships with alumni and SMUS community members to help raise money to build the facilities and programs for students that couldn’t exist without that donor support.
“The people connected to SMUS know what is possible here,” Bob says. “Raising money for a school is not like selling cars and you’re not twisting people’s arms. People want to know that they’re supporting the leaders of tomorrow. They want to know what’s going on with the school and that what the school’s doing is going to last.”
A school community is all about the people and the relationships built. Bob has never thought otherwise, and it’s what made him decide to continue as a teacher after that first “temporary” year.
“I loved the relationships and getting to know the students. I loved the interaction with the students and how it made me feel,” he says.
As Head of School, prioritizing the hiring of great teachers, attracting a diverse student body and providing them all with support allows you to build a warm and committed school community.
But perhaps the most important relationship for Bob that formed during his time at SMUS was with his wife, Joan. They met in 1998 on a blind date organized by two SMUS families, and were married in 1999.
He says Joan has been a wonderful support. “What I have found is that we seem to work together seamlessly. She’s been such a wonderful complement to me here. Joan is warmer and emotive and loves people quite openly and sincerely. I think she’s become a big part of our community and its warmth.”
Joan’s contributions to SMUS cannot be overlooked. She cares deeply about community, got to know students, parents and families, and has built genuine and lasting relationships.
Cathy Dixon, a SMUS Governor and a past SMUS parent, says Joan embodies the passion and compassion of the school’s mission.
“Bob and Joan together have amazing qualities that were very complementary to each other, and being in those roles is truly a team effort,” Cathy says. “Bob was just so great about talking about where the school has come from and where it’s going, and Joan was equally up to speed, but she really brought the soft side of community and family and love to everything she did for SMUS.”
Bob and Joan now have four adult children and five grandchildren.
Building a Legacy of Excellence
Bob says he spent a lot of time during his last school year reflecting on his career at SMUS.
“This kind of tenure was not in my sights when I began. But I stayed because the school is exciting and there were exciting things to do,” he says. “One of the highlights for me was the construction of the Crothall Centre. It was our first big project and it proved that we could do it: we could raise the money, we could plan and build a building, and we could see how it has blossomed in the way it was intended to.”
One of his most important undertakings, he says, was formalizing the school’s mission.
“It’s what epitomized us. Everyone participated in the conversation to create our mission and it put into words what we are and what all want our school to be,” Bob says. “It comes down to excellence in all of us. My hope is all students and all teachers and staff know that excellence can look different for each person. I don’t think that was ever new for this school. I like to think that we’re still the way we’ve always been, but only better.”
And while it’s inevitable in retirement, he says he doesn’t like to think about the word legacy.
“People will point to the facilities, but that was necessary; whoever sat in this office had to do it,” Bob says. “I hope the legacy is the memories people will have—not of me, but of their time here. Whatever role I may have played in them having the best possible experience at the school is what I hope people remember.”