When Xavier Abrioux ’76 retired from St. Michaels University School in June 2018, it was the third time he’d left SMUS. He had experienced the school as a student, as boarding staff and a part-time teacher, and most recently as Director of Middle School.
We sat down with Xavier to talk about his life and career, the school’s impact on him and his impact on it, and what he remembers most from the three different periods during which he was immersed in school life at SMUS.
Where were you born and raised?
My parents, who have both passed away, were born and raised in France, but they met in Scotland right after the end of the Second World War. I was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, because that was where they lived after they married, just before they emigrated to Canada in 1967. I lived there for eight or nine years before coming to Canada.
What brought your family to Canada?
My dad was a professor at the University of Aberdeen. At that time, the mid-’60s, a number of Canadian universities were hiring professors from British universities. My dad was offered a job as head of the French Language and Literature Department in Regina. He came over, checked the place and the job out, and then went back to Scotland, where he announced to my mother that we were moving to Canada.
I was eight years old. My two oldest brothers were starting university and stayed behind, but the four younger kids moved with my parents to Saskatchewan.
How long were you in Regina?
I was there from 1967 to 1971. My dad survived the prairies for three years before he got a job at the University of Victoria as head of the French Department. He came out, and my mom, three siblings, and I followed a year later.
When and why did you start at SMUS?
I went to a local public school for Grade 8. I had an unspectacular year on many levels — there was a lot of stuff going on in my family, which isn’t easy at that age. So, towards the end of Grade 8, my mom brought me to St. Michaels University School to see if I could start here the next year. I started at SMUS in the fall of 1972 as a Grade 9 student – the school was boys only at that time – and graduated in 1976.
As a student, what stands out for you about having been a student here?
I would say the impact of the teachers. The impact was immediate. From the first day, I could just tell some teachers wanted me to succeed. They got to know me. They coached me. They taught me. They were pretty important figures in my life at that time.
Going to school here gave me direction — I realize now it was a pivotal time in my life. My parents separated when I was in Grade 8. My dad left my mom, me, and the three younger kids. It was my first year here in Victoria and I was just kind of floating — not doing anything that was really particularly constructive or meaningful. My mom saw that and realized that she needed to do something to help me to get me back on track. Coming to SMUS did that for me.
It was a different school then. There weren’t many warm fuzzies, but I distinctly remember that, on the first day of school, Mike Walsh walked into class and taught me Grade 9 English and coached me and made time to get to know all of his students. There were many other teachers like that here.
It wasn’t something I’d experienced before.
By the time Grade 12 came around, what were you like as a student?
I seemed to be hitting my stride — kind of understanding a little more how things worked and what I wanted to do. I’d finished school, I’d made some very solid friendships, and I felt I was well prepared for whatever I was going to do afterwards.
There weren’t a lot of post-secondary options then. A few kids went off to other universities, but it wasn’t promoted. The school’s “university counselling” consisted of walking by the deputy head’s office where there was a box with applications for UVic, and you picked one up and away you went.
I started off at UVic, then transferred to McGill, where did my last two years of undergrad. I got a Bachelor of Arts, with a major in history. I knew I was more inclined towards the arts. I had thought of different options, but when I finished my undergraduate degree I still had no clear sense of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.
So I took a year off and tried to figure things out. I came back to Victoria, travelled and did stuff. I reached out to SMUS, and got a boarding position in a residence that no longer exists — thank goodness, because it was a terrible building. I worked in boarding for a couple years and taught French part-time at the Junior School. It was unofficial, because I didn’t have my teaching degree at the time — you could do that in those days.
During that time, I realized in hindsight what the school had prepared me for and that, if education was going to be where I was going, this was good place to start. I worked here, then did my post-degree teacher diploma in a local high school as part the program at UVic.
However, it was very difficult to get a teaching job in Victoria in those days. It was through John Schaffter, Head of School at the time, that I got a call from the head at Stanstead College, on the Quebec–Vermont border. It was a small, Grade 7–12 boarding school with about 200 students.
That was my adventure. I was young. I was a new teacher. I went there and got experience. I ran a boarding house. I coached. I did everything, as — it was a very small school — everybody else did.
Did you have any sort of epiphany, as in “teaching is the way for me to go”?
No, I really didn’t. It was during that first year here after university that I started to think teaching was an area I might explore further and I might enjoy as a career. Then, in my second year on boarding staff here and when I was doing my post-degree program and was actually in a school teaching Social Studies, History and French, and having my own classes for a whole year, I felt, “Yes, this is what I want to do.”
What did you teach at Stanstead?
I taught Grade 10 and 11 French to francophone students, like you would in a francophone school, and I also taught French to students who had never had French before.
Because my parents were French, I grew up speaking French at home, but all my education was in English. I had never really lived anywhere where French was the primary language.
What was your time during your first official year as a teacher like?
I loved it. I had no family around. I was living in a beautiful part of the county. I was young. I completely immersed myself in school life. I lived on campus. I ran a boarding house. I was coaching and teaching. It was my life, and I loved it.
It was very intense, because you lived there, you had your meals there, your colleagues became the people you spent the most time with, so you developed very close friendships.
Talk about meeting Bernadette.
Small school. Out of a little more than 200 people, there were maybe 25 or 30 staff. We’re two of six new staff members. We meet right before school starts. Like me, she’s a relatively new teacher. She teaches math and chemistry, and I teach French. She’s assistant houseparent in the girls’ residence, and I have the same job in the boys’ residence.
That’s how we met.
We met at the end of August, beginning of September. We got married the following year, but we told people we were engaged at Christmas.
Unofficially, we had been engaged since – ahem — mid-September. Three weeks after we met.
How did you know?
It was just… it was just…. Yeah, we had that meeting, that first night. A colleague — she did this every year — invited all the new teachers to her place to get everybody together. We sat down. Bernadette and I were seated next to each other … and it was an absolute disaster. Here’s this farm girl from Prince Edward Island who was science, and here I am from B.C. who was languages and arts. It wasn’t long before the gloves were off and we were going at each other.
It was a very interesting first meeting.
Then, within a week — less than a week — we were going out. And three weeks later, we were unofficially engaged.
Three years at Stansted. Then what?
We really enjoyed our time there, but we wanted to explore other opportunities. I applied for a job in the Winnipeg public system and got it. We left Stanstead, moved to Winnipeg, and Bernadette got a job in the same school district right before school started.
We were there for 17 years. I worked in a number of schools. I went into administration three years after we moved, so I had 14 years of experience as vice principal and principal in different schools. Bernadette taught at the high school mostly.
It was an incredible experience. It was a fabulous school district — progressive, great schools, really good people. We enjoyed our time there.
Seventeen years in Winnipeg. And then?
In 2004, a couple of school districts amalgamated, things were changing, and I was keen to try something else. I had applied for a senior administration position in another school district, but just before I went through that process, I saw an ad in the Globe and Mail for Middle School Director at SMUS. I went, “Wow – this is interesting. I’d love to go back to Victoria, and I’d love to explore what that might look like, what the school has been doing, where it’s headed, and whether that would be a fit.”
I applied and came out for an interview and was offered the job.
Bernadette tells the story differently. She says you went for an interview and said, “The weather was nice.” Then she got a call from Bob Snowden, Head of School at the time, saying she needed to apply.
What happened was I flew out early one morning and had the interview, after which I met with Bob. We were just chatting. We talked about my interest in coming here and about my family. And I said, “If it works out that I’m the person that’s a good fit, my wife is a Math teacher. I’m just wondering if you know anything about the local public-school situation here and what employment looks like for the local, public high schools in Victoria.”
Bob said, “Well, the market is pretty tough actually … but when you get home, have Bernadette send me her resume.”
I thought, “Oh. Well, who knows what that means?”
So, I returned to Winnipeg and the next day I left for a conference in Ottawa. Bernadette and I had a brief exchange about the interview. I think I said, “Yeah, I think it went okay — but who knows with these kinds of things.” I don’t think I mentioned anything like “Bob wants you to fax him your resume.”
But when I came back from that conference a few days later, there was a voicemail message from Bob saying, “Just wondering why I haven’t received Bernadette’s resume yet….”
Bernadette sent Bob her resume and came out for a job interview with the Math Department.
But, at the time, I had no idea that was even a possibility — I just thought, “Well, we did move to Winnipeg with only one of us having a job offer, and it worked out fine. I guess we might be able to do it again, but we don’t know. It would just nice to know what the local situation is like.”
And it worked out super well.
Had you been back to SMUS between the ’70s and ’04?
I came to Victoria to visit my parents but never stopped in at the school. I’d kept in touch with what was going on here and was aware the school had changed significantly and was vibrant and healthy, but I hadn’t really kept tabs. When the job came up and I came for the interview, I wanted to see how the school had evolved, whether it was differentiating how students were taught, what variety of programs was offered, and how the students were supported. I was involved in that in Winnipeg, so I was interested in seeing how SMUS did it.
During the hiring process, it became clear to me that the school was changing and that Bob wanted to bring somebody into the Middle School who had experience in creating supports for students, in helping staff to move forward, and in managing and leading change. In Winnipeg, I had been involved with a number of professional development and change initiatives, and I had a good sense of how to support schools and staff to make changes.
Were you looking to work specifically with a Middle School?
If I wasn’t going to be working in a senior leadership position, like at the superintendent or assistant-superintendent level, I wanted to stay Middle School.
I had a fair bit of experience as the principal of a Grade 7–9 school in Winnipeg, but Middle School is Grade 5 or 6 to Grade 8. That age is unique, and I felt it would be the best fit for me.
What is it about the Middle School age range that appeals to you?
Part of it is because my own experience at that age wasn’t great. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t well tailored to that age and stage of development.
Other than from birth to 6 months, the Middle School age range is the time of greatest change in kids, physically, emotionally, socially, cognitively — the changes going on in students during early adolescence are remarkable. The age group is like no other. There’s so much going on. There’s so much energy and excitement. At the same time, many kids are trying to figure out who they are, and their peers are becoming more important than their parents, and yet it’s important for parents to still be really involved. It’s the time when kids are moving towards abstract thinking, but they’re still very much kids. They want to explore, be active and fully involved in what they’re doing. They’re also starting to develop their student voice — and you have to help kids manage that, so that they can advocate and so that they’re set up for success in later grades.
So much happens in those grades that — when you have the right conditions, where you have the right number of kids, and you have the right supports in place — you can really help define their education.
For me, one of the biggest factors is school size. Kids at that age — they need to be in an environment where the adults know them really well, where the adults work really well together. When I was that age, I was allowed to be anonymous for most of it, and that’s not good. Kids need to be known. They need people who understand them well and a program that offers them different things.
What was it like coming back to SMUS as a school director?
It was an incredible opportunity to part of the management team at the school — to be part of the group responsible for steering the school’s strategic plan, to understand the big picture and the specific goals for the whole school, and then to guide how that translated into the Middle School. Bob gave us a lot of latitude in how we did our jobs. He trusted the people in the leadership positions to make the decisions and let me and my counterparts at the Junior and Senior schools get on and do what we needed to do. He was always interested in knowing what was going on. I appreciated hat autonomy and accountability.
There were some difficult times in the first years. With this kind of job, so much happens behind the scenes. My primary role is to support the teachers so they have what they need to do the best job they can to work with the kids. That’s my focus. And, as with everything, it takes time to get to know people and to see what’s going well and where you need to make some adjustments and bring staff along.
It’s probably been the most challenging and the most rewarding assignment of my career.
It was rewarding, because I could see the results of what we do for the kids, in terms of the breadth and depth of opportunities and the way the teachers work together and continue to be so creative and work so hard for the kids. The students here are very lucky – they probably don’t realize that…like I didn’t when I was a student here.
Challenging — because schools are complex organizations. I tried to set up some structures and processes to help us as Middle School staff move in the same direction and pay attention to what others were doing. That’s not always easy. And when you look at the breadth of the programs and see all the things the kids do here, and when you work with such an able and skilled staff, there are always things you can do better. It’s a question of harnessing that momentum, energy and commitment to keep everybody moving in the same direction.
Is there something over your time here at the Middle School that you’re most proud of?
We have done many things as a staff to move things forwards. Look at the programs we offer our students, look at what our students do in Leadership and in Service, look at the athletic opportunities, look at the fine arts — it’s a rich program. That has really grown.
And people now work together more. More things are now being done with the focus, “How can we do the best job possible for the students?” We’ve increased our learning resource supports and streamlined how they work with teachers and students, and teachers are collaborating more closely now and looking at things from more of an interdisciplinary point of view.
All of that benefits our students in a big way.
What will you miss most?
One is the daily interaction with teachers and the sense of community. We spend a lot of time together, and the Middle School is a different than the other parts of this campus — we’re smaller, we’re mostly self-contained, and we’re together for the whole day. I’m going to miss that interaction, the conversations and the communication with teachers and so many people.
And I’ll miss interacting with students. I try to be out there [in the Middle School] as much as I can, going around classes, chatting with kids, being involved in their activities, or doing this or doing that. I know all the kids and they know me. I love getting to know them and, at the end of Grade 8, being so proud of what they’ve accomplished here.
Out of all your years at SMUS — out of all three periods of your life you were associated with SMUS — what stands out most for you?
I remember the meeting in the old gym when the board and people voted on whether SMUS should be co-ed. John Schaffter started as Head of School in ’77, and that same year he proposed to the board that the school go co-ed.
The meeting was held that winter. I was there as an alum. My mom was there as a past parent. And, of course, the board and the head were there, the place was packed with parents, and all the faculty and staff were there, too, because they had a vote, too.
It was an amazing moment in the school’s history. It was very polarized. A significant group of people did not want the school to go co-ed, and other people saw that that was a direction the school needed to go.
It was a fascinating meeting. If memory serves me, the motion barely passed.
The following year, girls started in Grade 10. It started at the start of high school, and then was implemented gradually through the rest of the school.
But that was a pivotal moment in the school’s history, and to be there was something I’ll never forget.
Was Stanstead boys-only?
No, it was co-ed. My only experience in a single-sex school was when I was a student here, from Grades 9–12.
As somebody who went to a single-sex school, then worked only co-ed, was co-ed the right way to go for SMUS?
Without a doubt. It’s interesting, because when I was here as a student, in Grades 9–12, there were co-ed classes with Norfolk House School for Grades 10, 11 and 12. Norfolk House was girls-only, and SMUS was boys-only. Neither school was on a particularly solid financial foundation, and the only way they could offer some courses that both schools wanted was to allow some co-ed classes.
All through my high-school years here, girls would come from Norfolk House for a class or two, and boys from SMUS would go to Norfolk House for a class or two. The teachers who taught those courses taught co-ed classes, and the students would move back and forth. In Grade 12, I had three classes at Norfolk House, because those just happened to be the courses that I took that were offered by teachers there. But, before I came to SMUS, I had known only that approach, so co-ed classes were normal for me.
That of course stopped when SMUS became co-ed.
What does retirement look like?
I’m going to take some time off — to slow down and not do a whole lot. After that, I’ll figure things out. I have nothing planned. I’ve never really done any serious volunteering, so I’m interested in looking into that, but right now I just want to see what the routine’s going to be. A little travel, and then just seeing what else might come my way.
Any last words from the former Director of Middle School?
Just that I feel so privileged to have been part of this school for the last 14 years. I hope anybody who works here understands how fortunate they are. If you’ve worked in other school systems or elsewhere, when you come here, you appreciate what a great place this is and how well supported you are to do what needs to be done to help the students.
This interview was conducted for an article that was published in the Winter 2018 issue of School Ties.