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New president stresses connection to students

President Rick Commons, left, and     English teacher Eric Olson chat while walking by the Rugby Annex.

Noa Yadidi

President Rick Commons, left, and English teacher Eric Olson chat while walking by the Rugby Annex.

By

August 27, 2013

As Rick Commons walks across the quad, now quiet but ready to come alive during the school year, his toothy grin does little to conceal the excitement of returning to Harvard-Westlake as its president after leaving the school 15 years ago.

Commons fills the vacancy left by Tom Hudnut, Harvard-Westlake’s first president and the leader of the school for the past 26 years. Commons first worked in Harvard-Westlake’s admissions office.
“It was mid-year; I had come out [to California] thinking I was going to write a novel and learn to surf,” Commons said. “Neither of those things were going very well, and I decided I really wanted to be back at school, and Tom gave me a job.”

Later, after Commons completed his master’s degree studies at Stanford, Hudnut asked him to return as an assistant dean, soccer coach and English teacher. Finally, it was Hudnut who telephoned Commons two years ago and asked if he was interested in taking over his job while Commons was still headmaster at Groton School in Massachusetts.

“It’s not really an exaggeration to say that three times Tom Hudnut has given me an opportunity to do something really exciting,” he said.

Commons is aware of the huge shadow cast by his predecessor. The respect he has for Hudnut’s career is apparent.

“This school is only 23 years old, it’s amazing what this institution is,” he said. “You can say it was Harvard and Westlake before, but it’s so incredibly different from either that it really is a 23-year-old institution that has stature in the educational world like it’s been around for 200 years.”

Commons says it would be foolish for him to try to be Tom Hudnut.

“I won’t try to fill his shoes,” he said. “But maybe I’ll bronze them and put them on the bookcase and admire them.”

Recalling his time spent at Harvard-Westlake, Commons proudly plunks down a picture of himself and a boys’ varsity soccer team that he coached to the CIF semifinal game.

“It was a great group of guys,” he says, that broad smile beginning to form on his face. “Whenever you’re working on a team, you form bonds that just don’t get formed anywhere else.”

The photograph, signed on the back by the team members and given to Commons as a gift, is faded from being displayed on office desks during his tenure at the McDonogh School and at Groton.

“The first thing I did when I moved in was pull it out and stick it right here,” he says, returning it to its home on a bookcase. His beaming eyes could convince one that the season took place yesterday, but his hair, then thick and coifed like that of ABC political commentator George Stephanopoulos but now thinning on top, betrays him.

“I look a lot younger in that picture, huh?” he said. “Different era.”

The photo isn’t the only piece of Harvard-Westlake he carried with him during his tenure at Groton.

“The place where I learned to believe in what can happen when you put really talented, motivated faculty together with really talented, motivated students was Harvard-Westlake,” he said. “That stuck with me.”

This same level of academic excellence is present at the school today, which puts Commons in the “luxurious position to be able to do a lot of listening, a lot of learning, or re-learning about the place,” he said. “If the school were in crisis, I would owe it an answer about how I was going to change that, but as it is I’m giving myself time to get to know the community before I decide to make any grand changes.”

Commons knows there is a definite tradeoff that big schools experience when trying to balance opportunity and community.

“Our size allows us to do a lot of things that smaller schools simply cannot offer,” he said. “However, given Harvard-Westlake’s size, the school has to work really hard to feel like a community, and I’m eager to do everything I can to bring that to the school.”

Commons isn’t bluffing when he says he wants to get to know the community. He’s already moved the president’s office into the Seaver building, so instead of needing to go on a five-minute nature hike to visit him, students will be able to see him around campus more frequently.

Commons, a Shakespeare fan, will also be teaching a ninth grade English class in an effort to connect meaningfully with the middle school campus.

“I’m excited about it because I can be there in an authentic way and not just show up and say ‘Hi, I’m here to shake hands with anybody who wants to shake hands.’ I’m actually going to be in the classroom,” he said. “Teaching, that’s something that really means a lot to me.”

He says the only bad memories he has from his first tenure at Harvard-Westlake that he hasn’t blocked out are the faces of English students that he bored with his lectures.

“There were times when I stood in front of a class, 45 minutes passed and I realized I had just bored them out of their minds. I don’t want to do that,” he said. “I want to give my students the best ninth grade English experience possible.”

Commons returns to Harvard-Westlake with a family of his own. Commons and his wife Lindsay McNeil Commons ’96 have two children, Matthew, 6 and Clara, 3. Lindsay grew up down the street from where the family now lives, on Chautauqua Boulevard, and her parents still live in her childhood home.

“My kids will love being down the street from their grandparents,” Commons says. His face softens every time he mentions his family. He looks a little like a kinder, more approachable Hugo Weaving in this light;  think “The Matrix’s” Agent Smith mixed with a kindergarten teacher.

He hopes he’ll be able to spend time with his children even with the new responsibilities he’ll be taking on at Harvard-Westlake. Commons firmly believes that having children has helped form his identity as an educator. He recalls a time before he had his kids, when he was talking to the parents of a student he was dismissing from school as a disciplinary measure.

“They looked at me across the desk and they said, ‘Because you do not have children, you cannot possibly understand.’ I didn’t respond to them, but I thought, ‘What an irresponsible thing for them to say, what an unfair thing to say, what an awful thing for them to say,’” Commons says, pausing. “Then I got married, had my own kids, and I realized they were absolutely right.”
Commons believes that before he had his kids he couldn’t relate to the difficulty of “what it is like to love somebody so much and be totally unable to control what their experience is like and what their life is like.”

At times, Commons struggled with raising a family on Groton’s communal boarding school campus. “Sometimes my kids would have tantrums, right in front of all the teachers and all the students and all the parents who may have been on campus. They were all watching me be unable to control the temper of my 4-year-old,” Commons said. “It was really humbling.”

At his previous jobs, Commons was able to know every student by name. While he admits it would be nearly impossible to accomplish this at Harvard-Westlake, he recognizes that it is crucial to know the people you are leading to lead them effectively.

“If I was writing the headline for the article about my arrival, it would be something to the effect of ‘New President Excited to Know Community and to Teach,’” he said. “And I really want to do a great job as a teacher. That’s extremely important to me. It’s not the most aggressive headline, he admits, but it’s earnest, and that’s what counts.”

>>> Click here for a video interview with President Rick Commons.

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