Steve Kreps has been working to make “Bulldogs” for over 25 years.
But at the end of the 2017-2018 basketball season, Kreps, who retired from teaching in 2014, will also retire from his football and basketball coaching assignments within the Mahomet-Seymour School District.
“We have a saying on the football team: “If you’re not a better person when you walk off the field than when you walked on, then you’re not really a Bulldog,” Kreps said.
What makes a Bulldog?
“To be the best person you possibly could be all the time,” he explained. “To do the things that you know are right and to help other people do things that are right.”
Some may think teaching 9 and 10-year old students and teaching 15 to 18-year-old students how to be a Bulldog requires a different approach, but Kreps said the recipe for making a Bulldog is pretty simple.
He made sure the students had fun. He made sure that students had responsibility. He built relationships with the students. And he worked to make sure the students came together as one team.
“It’s like on the basketball court: some kids are great shooters, rebounders or ball handlers,” Kreps said. “But you try to get them all to interact and play together as one group. And if you can get your entire group to interact and become one, then you have a pretty good class.”
Although each student came to Kreps with an individual skill set and needs, he wanted to make sure that he had a relationship with them so that he knew what they needed from him to learn.
Kreps drew on his own educational experiences to understand what each child needed in his classroom. While many of his peers just needed to hear something to retain it, Kreps said he needed to hear and “feel” the lesson.
“I had to listen to it, write it all down, and a lot of times I had to rewrite my notes,” he said. “I had to touch it before I could learn it.”
For over 20 years, Kreps created memorable opportunities for students so they could feel the benefits of learning, too.
He said he always had candy in his classroom so when students did well on a spelling test, for example, he’d give them a piece of candy.
Kreps would catch his students’ attention when he’d run into the room to do a “carrier landing” on the desk. Or by standing on the chairs or desk to teach a lesson.
And he helped stretch students comfort zones by having them stand on chairs while speaking.
Kreps said in the 20 years he taught fourth grade at Lincoln Trail Elementary, only one student told him he was bored with what he was learning.
I told them every year, “If you’re not having fun, let me know and we will change something. If I’m boring, let me know, I’ll try something else,” he said.
“I only had one person tell me I was boring throughout my career. It was a science lesson. And you know what? I was bored, too. It’s tough to do something good when you’re bored.”
So Kreps changed up his approach to make the lesson into something the student would enjoy because he believed that if students could not enjoy learning when they were in fourth grade, then they’d have trouble finding the value of continuing on for another 8 to 12 years.
Sometimes making learning fun meant also challenging students to try to do a little bit more than they were comfortable doing.
One student didn’t think she could catch a piece of candy that was tossed to her. And she didn’t. It flew through her hands and hit her forehead.
Another student, who was attending public school for the first time in fourth grade, was scared to talk in front of the class, so Kreps had her stand on her chair to give her the confidence to project her voice.
But even though the student may have felt uncomfortable by being challenged, Kreps continues to foster relationships with these students and many more even decades after they left his classroom because he worked hard to build relationships with them.
His secret to building and keeping those relationships?
“I was never afraid to give a kid a hug,” he said.
“The best thing about elementary school, you kind of lose track of them in junior high, but then by coaching at the high school, you pick up with them, get to see them again and build relationships,” he said.
“Even at the high school, kids would come up and give me a hug.”
“You grow that bond with them and it’s tough to let that bond go,” he continued.
Not only does Kreps see past students with their families now in Mahomet, but he also keeps in touch with students who are now living in other parts of the United States through social media and regular phone calls.
Kreps said that although education has changed a lot over the last 25 years, children are still the same.
“I wanted my mom to make my bed, to cook my food and to give me $5 to go to the movie,” he said. “Now kids just need $50 to go to the movie.”
But deep down, what Kreps wanted as a kid and what he finds children still respond to today is the same: the opportunity to learn and to rise to the occasion, a place to belong and to be treated with respect.
Whether it was in the classroom, on the field or on the court, Kreps remained focused on teaching students and athletes the material they need to know to be successful both on and off the field, but he also wanted to teach them how to be good people.
“I wanted to teach them how to love life,” he said.
And for Steve Kreps, the magic of life comes to perfection during the Christmas season.
While teaching, Kreps came to Lincoln Trail Elementary the day after Thanksgiving to decorate his classroom for the holiday season.
“When we put the lights up in the hallway, the kids seemed more mellow, calm and serene,” Kreps said.
Like many things in life, Kreps learned his love for Christmas from his mother, who passed away 17 years ago.
Kreps grew up in a family with 11 children. He said that throughout the year, the family had enough food on the table and clothes on their backs, but they did not have money for much else.
But Kreps mother made homemade Christmas decorations such as balls wrapped in aluminum foil with red ribbon in the windows.
And although she was pregnant for nearly 20 years of her life, she did anything it took, including working extra jobs to make sure that when the Kreps children walked into the room with the Christmas tree on Christmas morning, they were stunned.
“There were presents from one wall to another wall to the other wall,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Through Christmas caroling at local nursing homes and select Mahomet-Seymour administration’s homes, Kreps built memories like this for his students.
“When I talk to most of my kids who are older now, that’s the day they remember the most.”
“I don’t think I ever had a kid who did not like Christmas,” he said.
Or a parent. Kreps recalled a family who held the Jewish faith, but when the class went Christmas caroling that year, the father of his student led the group in Christmas carols.
“It was awesome,” he said. “He had so much fun and so did we.”
“Christmas is just another way of giving. I wasn’t giving a gift, but I was giving the gift of myself. That’s what I really felt.”
But the gift of Kreps has impacted his students in many more ways.
“The time and effort that they expend to become a better athlete, if they will do the same thing in their life, if they work as hard as they do on the athletic fields, that translates into how hard you are going to work in your job, what your goals are and to shoot for those goals.”
“You get to be with a doctor before he becomes a doctor,” he said. “You teach them the rudimentary elements of how to be a student, how to be the person they are going to be in the future, what’s better than that?”
A man who is always on the go, Kreps said he is not sure what he will do with his time after he finishes coaching.
After retiring from teaching, he joined the grounds crew in the Mahomet-Seymour School District. Now head of the grounds crew, Kreps leads the team to take care of the lawns and athletic fields in most of the district.
Because the school district is thinking about accepting bids to take care of the district’s grounds, Kreps is unsure how long he will hold that position.
But he is sure that he will have to find a way to fill his time and continue to take care of the people in Mahomet.
“I’ve been here for so long, this is home.”