“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

As we welcome students back to school, this Maya Angelou quote is a good reminder to us all as to what matters most. It’s not what we say or do, but how we make one another feel that is most important. Creating classroom environments that are safe and where students feel respected is critical to building a foundation where students can access learning, take risks, and reach their academic potential.

I’ll never forget my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Gold. She opened our eyes to the joys of reading and showed us how to use math to solve all sorts of problems. More importantly though, she made every one of us feel special and convinced us that we could succeed. When we failed, she was there to comfort us, encouraging us to get up and try again.

I remember getting a zero on a spelling test. When I received that paper back with not one word spelled correctly, I felt I was doomed to fail first grade. I was distraught and there she was, reassuring me that I would do better next time. Never once in that entire year did I feel belittled or dismissed; it was an environment where we felt safe, loved, and respected. She always cared about how we were feeling and what was happening in each of our lives. You could see it in her face as she greeted us every morning. I couldn’t wait to go to school each and every day to do my best for Mrs. Gold.

John Hattie’s educational research confirms that the teacher-student relationship is integral to academic success. It has a stronger impact on learning than many other influences, including class size, computer-assisted instruction, or giving homework.

In Regional School Unit 5, we have a newly renovated high school with state-of-the-art STEM classrooms, a weight training room, and a beautiful cafeteria where our students can eat and socialize. Our new track and field is being built and will hopefully be ready for athletes to practice and compete on in the spring. We’re very grateful for these new facilities and they definitely enhance the learning environment.

But without great teachers and coaches, the impact of the buildings and facilities alone is negligible.

Effective teachers and coaches know the importance of relationship, of being a champion for every student in their class or on their team. The importance of that teacher-student connection should not be underestimated in our pursuit for improved student achievement.

Without relationship, without having someone who believes in our worth, students and schools will not excel. With a strong relationship, students and players will push beyond what they feel is possible. This only happens when classroom environments are established with the teacher-student connection foremost in mind.

Let’s begin the school year creating classrooms and schools where we make everyone feel safe and respected. When we do, we will perform beyond what others believe is unimaginable.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at [email protected].