Standing at the entrance to School House, St. Michaels University School’s iconic tree has deep roots. The same could be said for Peter Gardiner.
His story is also rooted in history and defined by growth. It seems apt, then, that after 51 years at the school, the tree remains his favourite spot on campus.
He was 24 years old when he accepted a teaching position at what was then University School. The appeal of something new and a sense of restlessness was enough to inspire a move from the U.K. to Victoria, BC. Looking back at a career rooted in place, it isn’t lost on Peter that his belief in the school’s potential and in the school’s willingness to change and adapt are part of the reason he stayed so long.
“The school changed around me and others who were here,” he says. “It was never dull.”
Small school, big potential
When he started at University School in 1968, it was one of several independent schools for boys in Victoria (another being St. Michael’s School). When those schools amalgamated in 1971, he remained on as a teacher at the newly formed St. Michaels
Those early days at University School left a lot to be desired though, he says. On arriving at the school, Peter recalls peeling paint, exposed pipes and overall poor facilities. Despite his first impression, when he met the students he could see the potential behind the aging façade.
“It was a much smaller school than I had previously taught in, but teaching is teaching,” he says. “And I saw huge potential in the school.”
In the early days, he stayed for the challenge. “In terms of teaching we had very little in the way of good facilities. That was true of any of the independent schools in the late ’60s. They were all teetering on the edge of financial instability,” he says. “It was really through the foresight of the University School and St. Michael’s boards that amalgamation happened. I don’t think the University School community was aware of how close to the brink we actually were.”
John Schaffter, Headmaster from 1977 to 1988, was the second head of the amalgamated schools and the one Peter credits for setting the foundation of SMUS’s excellent academic reputation. Under Schaffter’s leadership, the school became co-ed and the first in Canada to offer Advanced Placement courses, which remain a cornerstone of the school’s academic program.
“Those were very exciting years,” Peter says. “If one could single out one person, he is the one who put this school on the map academically, and in a relatively short period of time.”
Peter is credited for his leadership in the biology program on campus and off – he was a Lead Teacher for the AP Biology program for Canada, and shared his expertise in AP exam standards setting and marking for the College Board. He taught senior and AP Biology, and later introduced AP Psychology to the school.
His students are the first to credit his teaching style and the impact it had on them. He is credited for always challenging them, pushing them to be better academics.
It should be no surprise then that Peter earned several honours for his teaching, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, the USA National Association of Biology Teachers Award for Outstanding Biology Teacher in Canada and a BC Ministry of Education Award. The University of Victoria named him a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award – Education and SMUS presented him with the school’s highest honour, a Vivat Award.
“The school provided me with the academic freedom to teach it my way,” Peter says. “I had the privilege of teaching so many gifted students and watching their careers flourish. In addition, I was part of an outstanding community of colleagues, faculty and staff.”
A home away from home
The campus was initially home to Peter as he lived in School House his first year in the room under the bell tower (at a time when the bell was in daily use). During the summer vacation of 1969, he returned to the U.K. and married Jane, and brought her to University School to a house on the edge of the campus. They moved into Harvey House (where the current Science Block is located) and Peter served as House Master from 1970 to 1976. With the help of Jane, they brought a sense of family and home to the boys.
When asked what it was like to live with his students, Peter’s response is to the point. “Boys will be boys,” he says with a laugh. “I especially loved it when junior boys would knock on our door at 6 am, asking if I had a piece of string or an elastic band – it could have been anything. They just needed it now. It was great fun.”
Those years formed some of his strongest relationships within the school community. “I am still in touch with many of those students, in particular those who were Prefects in my house,” he says.
Which is why later, he stayed for the people. Peter had job offers elsewhere throughout his career, but his family was settled in Victoria and his two daughters, Clare ’94 and Rachel ’97, attended the school. He also stayed, in large part, because of the past students and the students to come who deserve the opportunity that SMUS has to offer.
“There are so many great students in the world who would benefit from the SMUS experience – it’s more than an education,” he says.
Evolving roles, evolving school
That is why, after 39 years of teaching, Peter did not retire from SMUS. Having also held roles as the Deputy Headmaster, principal of the Senior School and coach for sports ranging from fencing and scuba diving to tennis and badminton, he was asked to join the Advancement and Alumni Relations team in 2007. His new role was one rooted in encouraging giving, particularly to scholarships and ensuring that alumni felt connected to their school.
“It has been wonderful to meet up with so many of my former students, now alumni, friends and colleagues, and bring them back into the fold,” he says. “A connection to the school is a two-way street; we love to hear our alumni stories and to keep them up to date with what is happening at the school.”
As for the future of the school, Peter remains optimistic about the balance between the school’s history and change under the leadership of Head of School Mark Turner. As with the iconic tree outside School House, the years have been good to SMUS. Alumni often share with him their perspective on how much the school has changed and grown, and
Peter’s response is always the same.
“Everything changes,” he says. “And wouldn’t you want it to?”