By Casey Hans
Rick Dekeon is on the go. Whether he’s running for pleasure, working out with students, teaching a class or having a conversation with a colleague, Dekeon always has something on his plate.
The longtime physical education teacher at Northside Elementary School may be best known for his very visible, 7-year-old Cross Country Kids Club – which involves nearly half of the students any given year. This year, 130 of the school’s 285 students participate. The club can be seen running at or around the school grounds before school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Students get small rewards for their effort: collecting chains with tiny, plastic feet that they wear to show they’ve gone the extra mile, as well as medals with the club’s logo and pats on the back from “coach.”
But the largest reward, Dekeon said, is a new approach to fitness.
“Running is a lifelong pursuit,” Dekeon says. “Anyone can do it – it just takes a pair of shoes and the will to do it. They can run and walk for the rest of their lives.”
He said the Cross Country Kids Club encourages them to push themselves a bit. He also sponsors fun runs and other activities that bring out dozens of youngsters, as well as their parents.
“I want my kids to run a little more – I don’t want this to be a walking club,” he said.
His motto as found on his Web page: “Run fast, run hard, walk if you must… but always finish!”
Dekeon is not a clock watcher. His day often begins before 7 a.m. and finishes long after 5 p.m. In addition to the club, Dekeon also works out with a handful of students during his lunch hour daily, encouraging them in their fitness efforts. He coordinates all-school fitness events, such as the four-times-per-year hockey nights, organizes events such as the mid-May walkathon-runathon at the school and also plays floor hockey with students before school on Fridays.
All of this attention to health and fitness is just a part of who Dekeon is, says longtime friend Bob Kreger, who also coached youth soccer with Dekeon for many years and said he is a sort of Pied Piper that the kids willingly follow.
“He’s all about helping build kids’ confidence,” says Kreger. “Rick has absolutely wonderful skills. He’s always so positive about the young people. It’s his core belief: I think he just wants to help kids.”
Kreger adds that Dekeon always takes a “play hard, but play fair” approach. “And I’ve never, ever heard him use a harsh word, but they might have to do a few laps until they’ll listen to him.
“In the end, they’re all working together. He’s a real cementer in that way.”
Dekeon has a bit of a pay-it-forward philosophy. In his drawer are postcards he mails to students to encourage them and certificates that he fills in and hands out when students have done something nice for others.
Dekeon believes not only in physical activity, but also in teaching students others skills along the way. During a recent class with first-graders, he paired them up and taught them to time each other with stopwatches and ran them through the paces of how math skills and decimals apply. He also believes in teaching about life skills, such as nutritional eating.
“I like to try new things. You can be innovative without losing your approach to learning,” he said.
Principal Monica Harrold calls Dekeon “dedicated, genuinely caring and very compassionate.” He also responsible: Dekeon serves as her lead teacher, to whom she entrusts the running of the school if she is out of the building.
“You name it, Rick does it,” Harrold said. “He is really quite an incredible teacher and person. The kids love him and the parents respect him.
“Every kid is his kid,” Harrold added. “He’s there to give you a high five or a correction, he’s there for that too. He wants to make sure every kid is absolutely involved in every way that they can be.”
Harrold said he also does a good job integrating many subjects and is responsible for having an impact on every child in the school. “The whole building is his classroom,” she said.
In addition to his dedication to his K-5 students, Dekeon also reaches beyond Northside and out into the community, where he welcomes student teachers from a number of local colleges and universities. Pat Van Volkinburg, assistant dean for academic programs for the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology knows Dekeon well and calls him “patient” and “unflappable” and said he is one of her most requested teachers among student teachers.
“He has been mentoring our students for years,” she said. He works with them as college sophomores, allows juniors to come into his classes and observe and then gets them as student teachers in their senior year. Van Volkinburg said he stays in touch with all of them. “They e-mail him for free advice,” she added.
She places Dekeon at the top of her list of people she admires and respects. “The things that he does for the school shouldn’t be taken lightly,” she said. “It is not the norm.”
Casey Hans edits this newsletter for The Ann Arbor Public Schools. Email her or call 734-994-2090 (internal ext. 51228).
Occupation: Physical education teacher at Northside Elementary School since 1988, where he also serves as the school’s lead teacher.
Residence: An Ann Arbor native and Pioneer High School graduate who lives on the city’s west side.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in physical education and health from Eastern Michigan University with minors in marketing and biology.
Pets: No pets at the present, but still misses his longtime cat, Domino, who was 22 pounds of fun.
Hobbies: Running, plays hockey in an over-30 league and also plays drop-in hockey at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. He is a voracious reader.
Community service: Spends many hours at Northside coordinating before- and after-school activities such as the Cross Country Kids Club for students in grades K-5 and Friday morning floor hockey before school. He is a co-adviser for the Northside Student Council. He coached at Huron High School for 10 years (4 as J.V. soccer coach and 6 as head varsity coach) and currently coaches freshman soccer at Skyline High School. “I do it all for the kids,” he says.
Honors: 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.
Favorite meal: “I love pasta. I’m a hot dog addict. But I watch my fat intake and I drink a lot of water. I try to eat healthy.”
Last book read: “Born to Run – a Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes and the Greatest Race the World has Ever Seen” by Christopher McDougall.
Life philosophy: “Learn by having fun. And try your best in everything – always.”