Emory Report
April 2, 2007
Volume 59, Number 25

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April 2, 2007
Teaching the teachers

by kim urquhart

No one loves teaching more than I do,” says Professor Frank Pajares, whose distinguished career as an educator has taken him around the world. Pajares has been a middle school teacher in Florida, a professor at the University of Florida and a principal of an international school in Tehran, Iran. When the unrest and riots of the Islamic Revolution led to the school’s closing, Pajares returned to his native Spain to serve as headmaster and later director of the American International School on the island of Mallorca. Yet when he joined Emory in 1994, it felt like coming home.

“Emory was where I’ve wanted to be a professor all my life,” says Pajares, who teaches educational psychology in the Division of Educational Studies and serves as associate professor in the Department of Psychology. He recalls the first time he strolled through the Quad and thought, “I fit here, I belong here.” It was the fall of 1968 and Pajares, who was attending the University of Florida on a scholarship, was visiting a childhood friend who was studying at Emory. That friend was the first person Pajares called when he was later hired to teach at Emory.

Pajares immediately noticed a difference from his former classroom, where he had felt “more like an entertainer than a teacher.” Of Emory students, however, Pajares says: “I love their intellect, I love their challenge, I love their questions.”

And his students seem to agree. Pajares’ accolades include Emory’s most prestigious recognition for teaching, the Emory Williams Award for Distinguished Teaching, as well as recognition for excellence in teaching from the Emory Scholars Program, the Crystal Apple Award and others.

“A place like Emory prides itself on professors not only doing good research,” he says, “but on taking their teaching seriously and attending to the emotional and cognitive needs of their students.”

Pajares believes in nurturing academic confidence, and he practices what he preaches in the classroom. An expert on academic motivation, Pajares has studied and written extensively on self-efficacy — how confidence plays a role in student learning. “I study the processes that students use and the strategies that teachers can take to help motivate students,” he says. His research has revealed that self-efficacy beliefs are strong determinants and predictors of academic accomplishment.

“Human beings tend to act more out of what they believe than out of what they know. Quite often we have students who aren’t very confident about what they can do even though what they can do is quite strong, and you end up with young people who are capable but don’t believe they are,” he says. “If their beliefs are going to predict the ways in which they will move in the world, then it would be wonderful to help them understand that they indeed can do the things they believe they can’t do.”

Pajares helps students achieve their full potential by creating a classroom climate in which academic rigor and intellectual challenge are accompanied by emotional support and encouragement. He has high expectations. “You should always be asking from them more than they think they can give, but which you know they can give,” he says. “They need to sense that you care about them growing as scholars. You have to push them hard enough that they’re energized, but not so hard that they’re paralyzed.”

Yet Pajares always retains a strong sense of playfulness. This is apparent on his departmental Web page, where students can access course materials and research and also read an inspirational quote or giggle at a comic. His sense of humor is evident, for example, in a link called “Daily Affirmations for Professors” where No. 110 is “Today I will deliver my lecture in mime” and No. 45 reads: “Daily quizzes are the stuff of life.”

He integrates technology into the learning experience whenever possible, such as creating PowerPoint presentations for his classes. “I use everything I can get my hands on to help students learn in ways that are already comfortable to them,” he explains. In addition to “staying as technologically sound as you can,” Pajares believes that it is “important to stay current, to ensure that what you’re teaching is relevant.” As evidenced on his Web site, Pajares uses a range of philosophical, literary and popular examples to help students find relevance and importance in the material they are studying.

But it is not just the students who are learning. “They teach me a great deal as well,” Pajares says. “I believe that when we do it well, we can create a classroom atmosphere where teaching is collaborative and reciprocal, where professors and students can both teach and learn from each other.”

Instead of waiting for student evaluations at the end of the semester, Pajares distributes them halfway through. “It’s good to get feedback as often as possible,” he says. “Their responses help me to make adjustments.” And Pajares is always adjusting his curriculum. “Every class is an invention,” he says.
Pajares has taught many generations of teachers. “After us they go into the classroom, so we take that responsibility very seriously,” he says.

In 1999 Pajares was named Winship Distinguished Research Professor at Emory. He serves on six editorial boards, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, co-editor of the book series “Adolescence and Education,” and associate editor of the Journal of Educational Psychology.

His most recent book, “Self-Efficacy Beliefs of Adolescents” is “selling well” and has just been published in Italian. He is now working on his sixth book with his friend and former Emory professor Tim Urdan, in which great scholars around the country share stories about their favorite teachers, as well as another book series titled “Advances in Motivation and Achievement.”

Pajares has been invited to speak on “Self-Efficacy Beliefs of Adolescents” in Italy and is also looking forward to spending time at his home in Mallorca. However, vision problems often keep the world traveler grounded. Pajares jokes that the Emory Eye Center “keeps me in business.”

Yet his limited eyesight does not diminish Pajares’ passion for films. “My first summer job was as a movie reviewer for the local newspaper. Ever since then my passion for film has just overtaken me,” says Pajares, who has taught classes on education and film at Emory.

He says the best aspect of his work at Emory is his colleagues in the Division of Educational Studies. “We’re small but we make a lot of noise at conferences and such. It’s a lovely place filled with well-meaning people committed to teaching, research and service,” he says. “I’ve never had anything but just wonderful days here.”