Leadership interview with Innes van Nostrand, Appleby College
Innes van Nostrand
Innes van Nostrand is the Principal of Appleby College in Oakville, Ont. He sees the school as one that has gone through astounding changes over the years. It’s also a school that has achieved a high level of excellence in many fields. Innes emphasizes the fact that Appleby focuses on experiential and outdoor education. It’s a global leader in that field, he says. But one of Appleby's greatest strengths, he says, is the school's culture and the relationships that bind it together.
Highlights from the interview
I suspect everyone at Appleby College would say something like this: I’m really energized by the interactions I have at the school, whether it’s our students, our teachers, our staff, our parents or alumni. When you come to school each day, you can always speak to people who are going to put you in a really good mood. Everyone you talk to — they’re happy, they’re motivated. Those interactions make me feel good as I go about my day.
We have a campus up in Temagami. We have a huge outdoor education program. I might spend three hours hiking to our island across Lake Temagami in winter, or canoeing there in the summer, and that’s a great change from stuff I might be doing on campus, or the following week on a different trip. I find that variety is energizing and positive.
The campus here is spectacular. We’re very lucky. It’s arguably the most beautiful campus in the country. I knew the campus was lovely, I knew the programs were strong, but I wasn’t ready for how happy the students and faculty were. I found that the culture of Appleby College was not something I was expecting.
In some ways, there’s a typical Appleby College journey, and in some ways, every journey is very customized to the student. There are a couple of broad philosophical approaches that we have here that I think are important to those journeys. We have Grade 7 to Grade 12 here at Appleby. We have a very strong emphasis on experiential education — we’re a real leader globally in that. The blend that we’re trying to achieve is that commitment to excellence, at the same time as that breadth of experience.
The curriculum is deliberately broad, and then students can start to specialize a little bit in Grade 10, more in Grade 11, and even more in Grade 12. So there’s a broad experience there. From a developmental standpoint, my own view is that kids go through wild changes in those interesting years from about ages 12 to 15. Their brains start to rewire developmentally. Their bodies change, and how they interact with others changes. Part of our view is that stability, that consistency of experience — it’s important.
Students must have three co-curriculars: one for each term, and one or two club experiences on top of that. So that could be Arts, Athletics, Service, or a wide variety of other things. Kids have to do that through to Grade 12. We require them to have a minimum number of Athletics, and it’s the same thing with Arts and Service: so even if you’re a jock, you’ve got to do something in the Arts area. If you’re passionate about more academically-oriented things, you’ve still got to do a sport. Part of that is giving students a taste for things.
Appleby College has programs that are high-quality enough that, if you’re passionate about Drama, or Singing, or Rugby, or Mathematics, the calibre of the program is strong enough you can actually go and pursue that at a really high level. So finding that balance between excellence and breadth is important in the younger years. In the younger years, it’s more about breadth; as the kids get older, there’s a higher degree of choice.
Global education has been something we see as a really central part of experiences for kids as they’re developing ‘global citizenship’ — being able to live and work with people of all sorts of different backgrounds, and appreciating different cultures. That’s grown significantly at Appleby over the last 15 years. A few years ago, we made it a mandatory part of the program. So whether it’s a service trip, an intercultural trip, an academic exchange, or an international conference, every student who goes to Appleby will have a global experience through Appleby.
Probably the most significant experiential piece that people would note, that’s unique to Appleby College, is our boarding program. We have boarders in Grades 9 through 11 — mainly internationally, but some from Canada as well. But what’s unique at Appleby is that, in Grade 12, everyone has to go into boarding. And that’s a wonderful thing. When you talk to parents and kids, often their greatest fear is what’s going to happen when they leave home and go off to university. What we’ve created is this kind of ‘half-step’. They get used to doing their laundry, living with a roommate, and getting up for meals. That’s such a powerful experience, it’s a very safe experience — and, boy, does that Grade 12 class bond together.
Appleby typically has a staff turnover rate in the ballpark of 4%. I think our HR approach is really good, because we try to develop teachers, to keep expanding their horizons. We put a massive amount of effort into professional development here. We also have a leadership model for faculty where we don’t appoint someone to the Head of the Department forever. They have a term, and there’s a sunset clause on that. So people move around, and take on lots of different roles from a leadership standpoint.
I think the most powerful and most important thing that we offer at Appleby is the caliber of relationships. The relationships that students have with their teachers can be the most defining aspect of an education. Part of the craft of teaching — of the vocation, of the calling of teaching — is around making sure that those relationships are as powerful, as trusting, and as enduring as possible, so that the faculty connect with our students. At Appleby we have lots of PhDs, and we have teachers who know their subject area, which is important, but I think what’s more important is that relationship piece. That’s the kind of thing that stays with students for a lifetime.
People who’ve lived the values of Appleby College combine two things. They’re able to be successful in a traditional sense of the word, but at the same time, they have that more profound sense of calling, that deeper sense of purpose — whether it’s to family, to community, or to nation. I think any great education or school — whether it’s public or private, whether it’s in Canada or somewhere else — has got to deliver on those two things together.
Appleby College alumni are very committed to the school, and I think it’s one of our great areas of strength — despite the fact their experiences look very, very different.
Appleby College has a very supportive environment. We have a student support centre. We have a lot of people who assist our students as they are going through their journey. We’re interested in putting a child in a position to be successful.
To find a good fit at Appleby, I think for students who are really focused on a high degree of specialization early in life — if someone’s committed to being an Olympic-caliber fencer, for example, and they need to do that for 30 hours a week — that’s going to be problematic, as far as the breadth of experience that we’re asking of the kids here. But my experience has been that most young people I run into, they don’t fall into those profiles.
Part of succeeding at Appleby College is an openness to people of different backgrounds, and this notion of being a global citizen. So there’s an attitude piece there.
I think there’s a positive culture at Appleby College. To me, if you’re going to get one thing right, the most important thing to get right is the relationship between peers, and between teachers and students. I think that’s quite exceptional here. So if you can have people who are helping guide them, giving them experiences as far as programming — but more importantly, in culture — then I think you’re setting them up for success later on.
Appleby College has a very inclusive community. We have kids from 50 different countries here: a pretty broad range of diversity. That’s very powerful. We do quite well at getting people to work together effectively. So that inclusivity, which is a huge subject these days, is an area of strength for Appleby College.