Interview: Rick Dekeon—Don’t say “I can’t do it.” Say “I can’t do it right now.”
I truly don’t know how to do justice to long-time Ann Arbor Public Schools teacher Rick Dekeon. Anyone who knows him knows exactly what I am talking about. He is by far one of the most amazing teachers you will ever come across, and I have hundreds of people who are nodding their heads in agreement. He has been the physical activity teacher at Northside Elementary School for 24 years and has also been a coach of soccer, hockey, baseball and gymnastics (to name a few), at all levels from Rec and Ed to travel. But that is the tip of the ice burg.
Rick Dekeon is an Ann Arbor native and Pioneer High School graduate who lives on the city’s west side. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in physical education and health from Eastern Michigan University with minors in marketing and biology. In 2008, he was named Elementary Teacher of the Year for the Michigan Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. The Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education awarded him a Celebration of Excellence Award in 2003.
On any given weekend you will find “Dekeon”—as he is known by so many students— meeting students of his (past and present), to run along with in a marathon or race. You will find him at a try-out, a game, a scrimmage, tournament or race—often clicking away with his camera so that he can add pictures to his school website. He is so darned proud of all “his” kids. He is there to cheer them on, or be there for moral support, more often than not running alongside as he does so. He lets kids know “you matter to me and what you do matters to me. I am here to let you know how proud I am of you for doing your personal best.”
This is not a teacher who comes in, does his daily job then leaves. Rick Dekeon lives promoting physical activity for kids as well as positive body image, diet and self-esteem. Add to that Northside Pride. Any time you go to Northside, if you want to talk to Rick, take a number. He always has students milling about his office or the gym, waiting to share some snippet of their day with him. More often than not, a parent is waiting as well (or a few!) to find out how to help out on one of the many extra school activities or fundraisers Rick is in charge of, or to just share a story about their kid with him. He always finds the time for everybody and make everyone feel important.
Rick has many funny or inspiring pictures, comics and posters up around the gym and his office. One says: Don’t say “I can’t do it.” Say “I can’t do it right now.”
I believe that his is one of Rick’s main messages: you may not be able to do something right this minute, but with patience, hard work and perseverance, you will be able to.
I guess if I had to explain Rick to someone who didn’t know him, I would tell this story:
At the end of Ricks’ successful Northside Elementary School Cross Country Kids season (see explanation of program below), there is a final run. Kids walk away with medals, goody bags (another of Rick’s gifts: getting amazing sponsors!), snacks, sweaty bodies and the feeling of accomplishment. Their run is timed and a display clock shows finish times as they end the course. Music blares from speakers while kids enjoy the fruits of their labor and show off their medals.
Off in the distance, there is one boy still running. He is the last one, the only one, and behind by a huge margin. Not many people even notice him, as everyone wants to celebrate with Rick, circling around him, calling his name, and showing off their running time. For this last runner, finishing this race is a struggle at best. Physical activity doesn’t come easily to this student and he is often picked on for being overweight. But there he is, walking at times, but still going. And along side him is Rick Dekeon, talking him through it, encouraging him every step of the way. Letting him know that there will be no celebrating for Dekeon until this boy finishes. And finish he does, with a medal around his neck and the praise and recognition of one of the coolest teachers ever.
Sadly, my kids don’t go to Northside anymore, and no longer have the benefit of Rick’s teaching. I caught up with him and asked him a few questions.
A2Politico: You have a gift of making physical activity work for almost every kid. How do you do it?
Dekeon (the tall kid with ‘stache, left): Wow tough question… I haven’t ever considered it a gift but I suppose just make it fun! Think about it: what things do you or others do that don’t have a “fun” component to it? Otherwise why do it?? Also know my kids, talk to them and see what interests them. At Northside the students are allowed to make up activities. They have to have an objective, purpose and meaning to why it is being played. I also think that variety and freshness is important. I stay creative and mix up what we do. When I teach a lesson or do an activity I want my kids to know that these are things they can do for a lifetime! Regardless of their ability to do it.
A2Politico: Last week I wrote about the link between physical activity and higher academic performance, not to mention better self esteem and overall behavior. Do you see evidence to support this?
Dekeon: Yes! Definitely self-esteem and academic success. In PE we can take a subject and present it in a kinesthetic manner. This helps all of the students, but especially those that are kinesthetic (big muscle) or visual in their learning style. An example may be the difference between pushing and pulling. We do an activity that has pushing and pulling in it. By playing this activity, children learn how to distinguish between what a push is and what a pull is. This is a part of the classroom curriculum for first grade students and is in their science unit. Regarding overall behavior… I often, many times of the day in fact, get students who open the door and peek in or wander in on their way to somewhere else. I feel complimented by this because many of these kids are not good academically and the gym is a place where they feel safe, successful and are able to do well.
A2Politico: You have the unique ability to make every kid feel like you are their advocate and friend, yet you have their utmost respect and are seen as an authority figure. How do you make this balance work?
Dekeon: Well this one is pretty easy. Get to know them as a person. Find out what they like, get to know their personality. Are they timid, aggressive, outgoing, shy? Talk to them about concerns or interests. Form a relationship with them. I really like when the former Northsidians come back to visit. Either they have moved and are coming to see their old school, teachers and friends, or they are now in middle school. I also ask then about their outside pursuits and go see them play a sport or do a play etc. This allows them to know that I care about them as a person and I care about their pursuits. By knowing the kids I know what type of structure and how much is necessary for them, I also know which can take some “teasing” and humor and which can’t. If there was an issue I touch base with them the next day to see how they are doing and make sure they feel secure. Let let them know that I care about them.
A2Politico: Tell me a bit about your extremely successful programs Northside Cross Country Kids and Kid Rock Camp. How do you get kids to want to be involved?
Dekeon: Word of mouth! Kindergarten doesn’t usually get a flyer for CrossCountryKids. When a sibling or friend is doing it, a parent usually asks how their child can join. Then one or two other students join, and so on. Word starts to get around and we then get kindergarten children to participate. When we start, I see some of the children who aren’t involved and say “I didn’t see you at cross country today” and they usually respond “I’m not doing it…” and I then say “Why not???” This starts the ball rolling and I get a hold of the parents and they usually end up signing up. Having something for everyone and making it FUN! Changing routes, changing the club, adding things, timed mile, heart break hill, ten in twenty, etc. We have things that all children can do, again, for all abilities and not just making it an elite activity or program. We also put up a bulletin board and have the participants stand up at the end of the year assembly.
For KidsRockCamp, we can only take seven students at a time and they learn how climb/boulder for six weeks. They learn how to safety check and learn how to channel their fear of heights in a positive way. This also is word of mouth and when the kids see the pictures outside my office they ask if they can do it. I currently have a wait list of about forty kids! We limit it to third through fifth grades.
A2Politico: In Phys Ed class, you have all sorts of silly names for stations, and amazing, creative games. How does this change the way kids see physical activity and gym class?
Dekeon: They know that almost everything can be a movement or activity. For example it isn’t a “traditional” activity or game like baseball or football, but has the same skills involved. So if a child has a fear or apprehension of doing a specific sport, this helps disguise the skill being presented, even though it may be one or several of the skills used in those activities. For example: we do an activity called Crazy Kickball. It still has base running, kicking, throwing, catching, etc. The difference is that it has silly rules such as: as many people as you want can be on a base at one time, everybody automatically has a turn to be the pitcher, you RUN forever (this disguises that you are running long distances). It has goal setting because the students set a goal on how many bases they can get to by the end of the activity. If we play Movement Tag they are doing a dance when they are frozen, and to get rescued someone else has to come by and copy their dance at the same time to unfreeze them. It just make it seem stress free and also FUN!
A2Politico: You are always asking kids to come up with new games that they invent, then with your approval, they teach it to a younger gym class. Why is this important and how do you see it help your students?
Dekeon: Leadership and accountability, for their own learning. While making up their activity or game they have to “invent” it from beginning to end. Finding out what objective they want to teach, how to properly do and teach that objective, how safety concerns come into it, set-up, and also when they teach it they are in charge. I am of course next to them but some students freeze when they teach it and need to be given prompts or asked questions to help them break the ice especially while teaching other classes. It allows them to be the leader of the group, and also helps them start to learn how to speak in front of small or large groups.
A2Politico: You always have student teachers from EMU and UofM. They are all extremely lucky to learn under you. What are three things that you see as the most important things that you are sure to teach them?
Dekeon: Respect the students and their time, always be prepared, teach all of the students, not just the better athletes or better skilled individuals. I try to get them to think of how to teach the kids in a friendly non-intimidating or frightening environment.
A2Politico: What is the one thing that you wish all physical education teachers would teach their kids? The one thing you wish they didn’t?
Dekeon: Respect for all others, and perseverance! Not everything is always competitive but there is a time and place for competitiveness. Also, I do not like the sport model… not everybody is an athlete and not everybody needs to be an athlete, yet there is a place in everyone’s life to be able to lead an active healthy lifestyle.
Everyone is well aware of the extra hours you put in with kids, above and beyond what is expected of you. Just about how many hours a week do you put into the physical education and betterment of kids? Don’t be modest Rick! I know it must be at least 90!
During the school year it is approximately A LOT! Let’s just go with the ninety hours that sounds about right!
A2Politico: If you had an unlimited budget to use for physical fitness, what would be some of the things you would do with it?
Dekeon: I would like to have more access to things like heart rate monitors. Maybe take a room in the school and make a fitness center for everyone, students, staff and parents. Maybe have a small track on the back playground, etc.
A2Politico: What is your advice to parents of kids who are in dire need of physical activity, but resist?
Dekeon: Make it fun and be their role model, take them with you when you walk the dog, plan a run or walk each night and have them join you, make statements like: “did we really just walk TWO miles???” Take a class with them that encompasses fitness and or health, something like yoga or a fitness class. Just do active things as a family: toss and throw a football, do calisthenics , play catch, play on the swings or playground.
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