Winner of 2022 Frascona Award came to teaching late, but has created outsized impact on the lives of students.
Curtis Sears still remembers the first exam he wrote as a college professor.
Sears was making the transition from industry—he was a successful real estate attorney, broker and developer looking for a new direction after the 2008 recession—when he created a 100-question, multiple-choice exam for his Principles of Real Estate course.
“No one finished it. I had a total rebellion on my hands,” Sears said.
From that inauspicious start, Sears has become one of the most respected professors at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder. At commencement, he was honored with the Joseph L. Frascona Teaching Excellence Award, presented annually by students to a professor who is a strong mentor, who encourages intellectual development and creates lasting impact beyond the classroom.
It’s the fifth time he’s been a finalist for the award; he also has won the Marinus Smith Award for teaching excellence from the university.
“Early in my teaching vocation, I got a lot of grace from students, because I think they could tell I wanted to be there, appreciated being there, cared about them and cared that they were learning,” Sears said.
That often means challenging students to develop the skills they will need to become successful professionals—like an ability to think critically, recognize patterns and make inferences. An avid cyclist, Sears likes to tell students that studying is a lot like riding a bike.
“If you’re on a bike, if the muscles don’t hurt, you’re not changing your physiology,” Sears said. “When you’re studying, if your brain doesn’t hurt a little bit, you’re not actually thinking and learning. If it’s not uncomfortable, you’re not really working.”
He called the Frascona Award “lovely recognition,” saying feedback from students and alumni “is the juice that keeps me going. I literally have hundreds of letters and emails from former students. Those notes just mean the world to me.”
Sears has had a front-row seat to the growth of the undergraduate real estate program, from when it was just a certificate program to becoming a full-fledged area of emphasis, with 200 students graduating from the program this year.
“The partnership of the CU Real Estate Center is phenomenal, the way the Center connects industry people to our program and to our students,” he said. “We have a feedback loop through CUREC that helps us stay on task, teaching students the skills they need to get hired and be successful.”
It doesn’t hurt that Sears brings law- and real estate-focused experience to class—and freely shares resources with students. Michael Kercheval, executive director of CUREC, said he appreciates that Sears’ classes are “first and foremost about learning.”
“Curtis is one of the finest teachers I have ever encountered, leading through inspiration, demanding of integrity and truly committed to preparing our society’s future leaders,” Kercheval said. “He is a joy to work with and learn from.”
And while student recognition is what fuels him as a teacher, it was the support of his wife and three daughters that helped him pivot away from the demands of development work amid financial crisis.
“When I told my wife I wanted to get into teaching, she encouraged me the whole way,” Sears said. A meeting with Thomas Thibodeau, then-executive director of CUREC, led to the principles course, “but I was still neck-deep in real estate and practicing law—I wanted to make this a career. Tom told me that doesn’t happen much, and that he didn’t want to get my hopes up. I said, ‘Tom, I’ll just keep showing up, and we’ll see what happens.’”