When we think of pollution, we often think of our natural environment being damaged by billowing smoke stacks that result in acid rain, illegal dumping of toxic chemicals into rivers and lakes, or a multitude of other infractions.   There are other types of pollution that negatively impact learning environments. 

Many things can pollute the academic learning environment of our students.  Offenders can be students who are disrespectful in class during discussions, sometimes by texting and distracting others from learning.  Professors have ways of managing much of this behavior to help students develop into professionals. There are policies in place if things escalate beyond the professor’s control.  The “Do Not Pollute” signs for students can be found in the syllabus and in college policies. 

There are things faculty might do that pollute the learning environment. A few examples include not bringing their best to class on days they don’t feel like teaching, being disrespectful to students by calling them unkind names (in or out of class), treating students unfairly, being disrespectful to colleagues by talking about them in classes, or not acting kindly/professionally with colleagues in front of students (students develop beliefs about how we feel about each other). It is harder to find the Do Not Pollute signs that address these behaviors, even though they have been around for years along the many professional roads we have traveled.  In fact, some get used to seeing the signs and it becomes easy to ignore them or even push the limits.

The academic learning environment is a sacred space we want to keep pristine to promote maximal learning. Faculty and students alike deserve clean air that is not polluted by the poison of poor relationships and they deserve to drink the water without concern for being poisoned by toxins that put their academic health at risk.

I was invited by Governor Cuomo’s office recently to present at a Public Hearing for the NY Education Reform Commission in Lake Placed. Chancellor Zimpher is on the commission and was seated in front of me as I spoke. I laid down the foundation of my presentation by speaking about organizational culture and the importance of having a strong community that works well together. This requires a shared mission. At the EHHS Division’s opening meeting, I spoke about our mission:

    “The mission of the Division of Education, Health, and Human Services is to prepare students for positions in their respective fields, to provide a learning environment that fosters growth and development, and to inculcate creative, critical, and humane thinking.”

I also shared the following information about mission by Dan Rockwell.

  • Shared mission binds diverse people and groups together.
  • It builds connections where people respect each other even if they don’t like each other (more likely their beliefs and/or values).
  • It enables a context where people rely on the performance of others.
  • Great talent strengthens organizations as long as everyone deeply commits to a shared mission. Apart from that, diversity (individual talent without commitment to mission) is paralyzing chaos.

Our mission speaks to an engaging learning environment.  The second point by Rockwell, if not followed, speaks to a possible pollutant to this environment.  In the divisional meeting, I said there will be times when we don’t agree, but we can be aligned toward a common goal – students’ learning.  For maximal student learning, we must ensure a clean learning environment that is supported by our positive organizational culture; we must strive to be professionally responsive rather than personally reactive.  Our civility and the respect we foster in classes with and between students, as well as the respect we display with colleagues, are crucial to our students’ learning environment.  These truly are sources of renewable energy.  The learning environment, not unlike the national forests, should never be polluted.  As the icon for the US Forest Service, Woodsy Owl, used to say, “Give a hoot – don’t pollute!”