Dr. Richard Elder Drops Out of High School, Into Teaching

LSUA Psychology professor Dr Richard Elder

Dr. Richard Elder and student Kayla Tuma presenting research at the Louisiana Psychological Association Conference in 2006

After making a geographic move that prompted him to drop out of high school, Richard Elder made a career move that surprised himself.

"Teaching wasn't my plan, by any means," Elder said. "When an aptitude test said, 'Be a teacher,' I laughed. I said, 'I'll never do that.' Then, I worked with an instructor during my undergrad who taught statistics and had me teach a lab class as part of independent study. I found out I loved teaching."

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from Fort Hays State University in 1986, Elder applied and was accepted at three universities with paid assistantships. But things didn't go quite as planned out of the gate.  

"I accepted a position at Binghamton University — State University of New York," he said. "I was driving from Kansas to New York and freaked out on the way. I said, 'I don't know if this is really what I want to do.' I went back to Fort Hays State, completed my master's degree in experimental psychology in 1988, taught for two years and then got my Ph.D. at Kansas State University."

Elder taught psychology at Fort Hays State, Kansas State, Illinois State University, Martin University and Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and Mississippi State University before becoming a professor at LSUA in 2005.

Thirteen years later, Elder is going strong.

"It was a long journey," he said. "It's been a lot of fun working with many of the students. They have such different backgrounds and experiences."

Coca-Cola to College

Elder grew up in Norton, Kansas, a small town of about 2,500 people, 21 miles from the Nebraska state line. He moved south with his family to Hays, Kansas, during his senior year of high school.

"I needed two classes to graduate," he said. "At Hays, they told me that I had to take two full semesters with full classes both semesters to graduate. I said, 'It's not worth it.' I also had a full-time job at night working for Coca-Cola."

Elder worked full time for eight years and earned a GED. As he endured problems at work, some friends who were in college at the time encouraged him to also enroll.

"I was laid off twice in a year while working on a production line," he said. "When they shut down the production line, I was driving a forklift. Then, the boss and I had an issue. I didn't have a job after that. I decided it was time to do something with my life that had a future."

Elder enrolled at Fort Hays State as an accounting major, but when they told him he had to take calculus, "I said, 'Well, I'm not going to be in accounting.'"

After switching majors, Elder worked as a researcher in an animal laboratory. Once in the master's program, he moved on to human research. Elder also worked on a research project for IUPUI while he was chair of the department of psychology at Martin University.

"I have two or three friends and an older sister who had all been psychology majors, so I was exposed to it a lot," Elder said. "I always had an interest in psychology and always enjoyed observing behavior."

Elder teaches five online courses — PSYC 2525: Statistics for Behavioral and Social Sciences, PSYC 3001: Cultural Diversity, PSYC 3017: Research Methods for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, PSYC 4017: Advanced Research Methods in the Social and Behavioral Sciences and PSYC 4900: Senior Seminar in Psychology.

Elder, who did research on alcoholism and genetics in graduate school, teaches most of the same courses face to face, too. LSUA offers two online psychology degree programs: Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Bachelor of General Studies: Psychology.

"In the last year, we became our own department," he said. "We were previously part of the Behavioral and Social Sciences department. Now, we're the Psychology department. We're slowly transitioning from the way things were done to doing them a little bit differently."

Information Superhighway

Elder admits that he was skeptical when online education became a reality at LSUA.

"When I first started, I did it because I knew we had to," he said. "I associated it with the for-profit universities, and I was not sure of the quality of their education. I know our online program is as thorough as the in-class program. You get the same thing in our seven-week courses as you do in our 16-week courses. I enjoy it now."

Elder isn't just making sure online courses have high standards at LSUA. He is a certified master reviewer for Quality Matters, which reviews online courses across the country for quality assurance.

"I have three Quality Matters-certified courses that I teach," he said. "I review other people's courses. That's where I learned online education can be equivalent to, or better than, face to face."

Away from work, Elder is on the Alexandria Zoo board of directors.

"When I first came here, I got involved with the director of the zoo who has since passed away," he said. "In that time, I've held four different baby tigers. They've had six cubs but only four of them that you can handle. That was my fantasy come true."

Additionally, Elder enjoys going to flea markets and collects swords. He has between 50 and 75 in his collection.

"I started out buying the cheap samurai swords and whatever I could find," he said. "I like unique knives — there's just something different about them. As I go around to flea markets, I run into something I like now and then."

Even though Elder took an offbeat path to a successful career, which includes winning the 2016 Bolton Award for Teaching, he lives for the moments that validate the results of his aptitude test.

"I like seeing the lightbulb go on," he said. "My most rewarding experiences have been when I have a student who is struggling and, suddenly, you see that they get it. That and being able to help them realize their potential are what I enjoy most about teaching."

Learn more about Dr. Elder.

Learn more about the LSUA online Psychology programs.


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