What I Learned When I Asked My Fourth Grade Teacher Everything I Never Did In Fourth Grade

School has changed a lot in 16 years.

Sixteen years after being in her classroom, I finally got to ask my fourth grade teacher some questions I never had the opportunity to (or thought to) when I was younger.

As part of Teacher Appreciation Week, I reached out Stephanie Lucci-May, one of my favorite teachers ever. She still works in the same elementary school she did when I got to sit in her classroom and read Holes. Instead of asking what I'm sure were silly and overly inquisitive fourth grader questions, this time I got to talk to her about how things have changed, what she'd change and what she loves about her job. So much policy in America gets drowned out by blaring headlines and political talking points, and too often we're left not hearing from the teachers who are actually in the classrooms with our children. 

Fortunately, Lucci-May was happy to offer me some insight.

Lucci-May celebrates one of her student's birthdays. 
Lucci-May celebrates one of her student's birthdays.  Stephanie Lucci-May

"The biggest difference is definitely the amount of standardized testing that the students are required to do," Lucci-May told me. "I don't believe in teaching to the test, but I don't want my students to go in feeling like I have done them a disservice by not preparing them. So I do spend some time going over some strategies, etc., but that takes time away from doing a lot of the lessons that I love." 

Lucci-May says that for her fourth grade students, she has four days of standardized testing for English and language arts, three days of math and two days of science. All are state requirements, and come before another four days of computerized standardized testing in the fall and spring. 

If a new study is any indication, Lucci-May's instincts are on point: a comprehensive survey done by Council of the Great City Schools and The Washington Post found that a typical student takes 112 mandated standardized tests between kindergarten and 12th grade. In contrast, many of the countries that perform better on international exams than the U.S. only test their students three times during their entire school careers. The survey found that 62 percent of teachers feel they spend too much time getting students ready for a state exam.

In 2015, the problem was so bad that President Obama took to Facebook and promised to reduce the number of tests that teachers are forced to administer.

"It would be great if we got really fabulous information from all of these tests, but I don't feel like that is the case," Lucci-May said.

Lucci-May's kids holding their own version of Alaska's Iditarod sled dog race.
Lucci-May's kids holding their own version of Alaska's Iditarod sled dog race. Stephanie Lucci-May

Lucci-May is also hopeful the federal government will step back and give more control back to local districts and states in education policy. In many ways, she said, that's already happening. But there is room for improvement.

"There are definitely issues in my school district—but those issues are so different than a school in the inner city of Philadelphia," Lucci-May said. "No better or worse, just different. We all have different needs, state to state, county to county and I think districts know the best way to deal with their personal needs. Trying to find one solution that will fix everything is just not feasible."

The debate over federal and state or local control of education goes back decades, and it's understandable: our education system is primarily funded locally, so it makes sense that communities would want a say in how their hard-earned funds are distributed.

"At the elementary and secondary level," the Department of Education writes on its website, "about 92 percent of the funds will come from non-Federal sources." On the other hand, in 2013, the federal government spent about $72 billion on education, and in order for schools to see a penny of that money they have to meet certain federal requirements.

This is part of the reason why, in late April, President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos signed an executive order to study whether the federal government has overstepped its boundaries in managing education.

"Previous administrations have wrongfully forced states and schools to comply with federal whims and dictate what our kids are taught," Trump said. "But we know that local communities do it best and know it best."

One of the most common criticisms of Obama's tenure in the White House was that the government was becoming too involved in local education, pushing civil rights causes by withholding funds, which was seen by many teachers as noble but disruptive. Supporters of Obama's initiatives fear the new administration's reviews of these Obama-era policies may end up hurting marginalized students.

Of course, some changed have occurred since I left her class — many of them more than welcome. Namely, the technology Lucci-May uses in her classes has changed a ton.

"You would be hard pressed to find a chalkboard anywhere around," she said. 

But beyond the nostalgia of chalky hands, the increase in technology is actually pretty helpful. She can present her math curriculum on her e-board and the kids can interact with it using their Chromebooks. She doesn't have to erase work on a chalkboard to make room for more writing, either — they can just preserve the work students have done by saving the screen and moving on.

One year, Lucci-May was able to a Skype a student into class every day following a car accident that left recovering at home for many months. As a result, he didn't miss any important lessons. 

Lucci-May and her two children, Chloe and Rocco.
Lucci-May and her two children, Chloe and Rocco. Stephanie Lucci-May

Being that it's Teacher Appreciation Week, I also asked Lucci-May what the most misunderstood, underappreciated thing about teachers is. She made it clear she loves her students and her job, but she also said there were times when she was reluctant to disclose she was a teacher because so many people think her job — based on 9-to-3 hours and summers off — is an easy one. 

"I would love for people to understand that our jobs do not only exist during school hours," Lucci-May said. "Not only do we bring much of our work home with us, but the concerns and issues that we have with our students don't just get left in the classroom. We carry those around with us in our daily lives and that is far more consuming than any paperwork I bring home.  I spend more time with my students than I do with my own children during the school year, so in a way they truly become mine."