As a freshman gymnast at Kansas State University in 1971, Rick Pappas performed for thousands of people at a time, but one small exhibition at an elementary school changed his career.
Rick was one of 10 performers in the show. The kids took to him right away, and their cheers grew louder every time his coach would introduce him to the stage.
“‘Third time, Rick’s coming up! Here comes Rick!’ And I would do a trick,” Rick said.
The kids went wild.
Rick’s voice rises into a howl as he recalls their cheers.
“’Yay Rick!’ I mean, screaming at the top of their lungs,” Rick said. “I even messed up once and landed on my bottom. ‘Yay Rick!’ Way over the loudest ovation I ever had with 10,000 people. I had never seen anything like that.”
When the performance ended and the group boarded their bus back to KSU, Rick’s coach marveled at the kids’ admiration for him. He suggested that Rick embark on a career working with children.
Rick was a business administration major. Two weeks later he switched to physical education.
Rick believes that his coach’s wisdom was a defining moment in his life. He used that example and others to bring his students direction and joy over a vivid, 43-year career spanning from 1976 to his retirement in May.
In Rick’s elementary school classroom, PE became a way to channel classroom lessons with physical activity. When he began teaching elementary PE at Wichita State in 2009, he taught his students the same lesson.
“I’m trying to get across to them that as a physical education major, they’re teaching the whole child. It’s not just in the gym,” Rick said.
It was for this reason that Rick was awarded WSU’s Excellence in Teaching award this year.
Early in his career, he witnessed a third grade teacher take a student out to the hallway with a soccer ball. She had placed a number on every panel of the ball, and tossed it to the student. Wherever his thumbs landed on the ball, he had to multiply the two numbers.
“I thought, ‘I like that idea. How could I incorporate that into physical education?’” Rick said.
Rick won a grant from the Boeing Airplane Co. for the integration of math into physical education and used the money to purchase equipment to develop new activities for the students.
“One of the things we did at elementary schools was vowel tag,” Rick said. “I found these neat little alphabet vests. All the kids were wearing letters. The consonants were in blue and the vowels were in red. The vowels would try to catch the consonants. When they got caught, they would have to think of a word that began with the letter that they had.”
Rick developed dozens of activities for his students based on his research, fellow teachers’ presentations and his own creativity. The activities reinforced math, science, geography and many other topics.
In some cases, Rick made his own equipment. He built “magnetic wands” out of craft magnets glued to wooden tongue depressors and had his kindergarten class safely move around the gym to find out what the magnets would stick to.
“When someone would find something that would stick to it, and yell, ‘It sticks!’” Rick said. “The whole class would move over there and try it. That’s something I did this semester with the college majors as well.”
In many cases, his physical education majors performed the same exercises as kindergarteners. Rick struggled teaching traditional college lecture classes, so he began booking the Heskett Center basketball court for every class.
“A lot of the classes were pretty much hands-on, trying to teach them ways they would teach their students, and break down the skills,” Rick said.
One of his biggest lessons to teach PE majors was that their talents and abilities uniquely position them to have fun with their students. If a teacher can juggle, then let their students see it.
Professor of Physical Education, Wichita State University
“It makes connections with students,” Rick said. “That is so much more important to me than the content. It’s making connections and building relationships with the students.”
Rick emphasizes that a teacher doesn’t always know the impact that they have on their students. He attempted to foster feelings of belonging and support in his classes in schools and at WSU through providing experiences that would add meaning to a student’s life.
Rick found that he could use his experiences as a gymnastics coach to celebrate his
students’ birthdays. On a student’s birthday, he hoisted them off the ground and flipped
them mid-air. Each student would receive “birthday flips” equal to their age.
However, the birthday flips and frequent bodily stresses of PE classes caught up with Rick over the years. He decided to retire in 2019.“To this day, students in their 40s will remember the birthday flips,” Rick said.
“My heart wasn’t ready to give it up, but my body was,” Rick said. “The hardest thing for me was not being able to see the current majors I had and new majors finish up.”
Looking back, one of Rick’s inspirations for his classroom presence is Helen Steiner Rice’s poetry collection Heart Gifts.
“It’s not the things that can be bought that are life’s greatest treasure. It’s the little heart gifts that money cannot measure. It’s things like kindness and support.”
Rick continues to serve as historian and ambassador for the Kansas Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, through which he mentors current teachers and presents at conferences.
He also hopes to travel to Greece, from which three of his grandparents hailed. It’s been a lifelong dream.