By Elizabeth Exline
For Erick Lear, teaching wasn’t always the endgame. But it was a sort of guiding principle that led him through a career in social work, into a position as an academic counselor at University of Phoenix (UOPX) and, finally, to a teaching position with the university.
"Teaching has always been something I’ve thought about doing," he says. "Teaching is just intrinsic."
Today, Lear is a faculty member with the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UOPX. He serves on UOPX’s Faculty Council for Psychology and Human Services. And he was recognized as Faculty of the Year in 2020, an honor bestowed on just 15 faculty members out of more than 1,300 student, faculty and staff nominations.
Lear has, in other words, come a long way since high school when he thought he might someday become a teacher. And it’s a journey that has been informed by his drive to challenge both himself and others.
Lear grew up in Akron, Ohio, and he spent the first 15 years of his career as a licensed social worker with a nonprofit organization that served a population with HIV/AIDS.
Lear enjoyed the work, but by 2013, he was ready for a change. Capitalizing on another dream he’d had since high school, he moved to Arizona.
"I used to visit my aunt in Tucson, and I’d always dreamed of moving to Phoenix," he recalls.
The landscape wasn’t the only change in store for Lear. After working as an academic counselor with UOPX for about six months, he applied and was hired to become an educator with the university.
UOPX’s commitment to both students and staff who want to grow and learn resonated with Lear. In fact, it still does. After teaching a number of different courses over the past 10 years, Lear recently signed on to become a subject matter expert for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. This is basically a fancy way of saying he helps develop the curriculum and materials for a given course.
According to Dean Aslinia, PhD, Lear’s curiosity and expertise add value to UOPX as an institution.
Aslinia serves as the associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and explains, "Erick contributes to the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences not just as a wonderful faculty member whom students love. He also helps the college in its efforts to ensure all of the curriculum is up-to-date. The college is lucky to benefit from Erick’s commitment, steadfast professionalism and work ethic."
Students also benefit directly from these qualities in the classroom. As evidenced by the student nominations for Lear’s Faculty of the Year award, Lear consistently challenges students to push themselves in how they think and write.
"Some students are surprised I focus on their writing skills," Lear admits. But he says the writing is important. Writing is essentially communicating — and that’s what both the field and Lear’s classes are all about.
"We document everything in the field," Lear argues, and it’s important to be clear and accurate when you do it.
Students might also be surprised by Lear’s somewhat old-school admiration for the class textbook. But really, this analog appreciation is not as out of character as it might seem. Yes, Lear is a teacher at an online university. Yes, he recognizes and appreciates the opportunities inherent to flexibility and change. Yet he’s also exacting when it comes to accuracy.
Lear says that knowing high-quality information is "what’s going to help students in their career."
Helping students, after all, is Lear’s primary objective, but the online classroom can pose unique challenges when teaching human services. "We can all relate to the material," Lear points out. But conveying that can be tough outside of a face-to-face venue.
"I can’t see when my students disagree with me," he quips.
Still, Lear has learned how to circumvent the distance. For one, he finds connections between real-life events and the course materials. "Students can relate to that," he says, "because a lot of things have happened in their communities."
And then there’s Lear’s determination to find the proverbial gold each student brings to the classroom. "Everybody has something to give," Lear says. "I try to empower my students."
This is something Lear believes at his core. It’s what makes him an effective teacher, and it’s what drives him to take on new roles and opportunities himself. He says he’s recently become a volunteer coordinator for the National Organization for Human Services, explaining, "After 10 years of teaching, I don’t want to do something different, because I enjoy it.
"I want to do more."
Discover why UOPX’s Behavioral Science degrees offer an exceptional pathway to the field.
Erick Lear isn’t the only Faculty of the Year winner! Meet another award-winning educator, Donna Lange.