FORT WALTON BEACH — Wright Elementary School’s Laura Steele earned the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching from the White House in Washington, D.C., Thursday for teaching kindergarten students.

Steele earned the highest honor from the government for her teaching, which she has done for 23 years at Wright Elementary, including the past seven with kindergarten students. The previous 16 years, Steele taught math and science to second through fifth grade students at the Fort Walton Beach elementary school.

“Unbelievable,” said Steele, who choked back tears. “I’m absolutely trying not to cry. It’s outstanding. But it’s all about these amazing kids I teach. They should be the ones highlighted. They’re the ones that it’s all about.”

One of four recipients from Florida for 2017 and 2018, the award grants her $10,000 from the National Science Foundation, a certificate signed by the President, and trip to Washington, D.C. While there, Steele and other STEM educators participate in professional development and network with fellow teachers from all 50 states and U.S. territories. Congress created the award program in 1983.

Steele’s passion for teaching includes creating kindergarten mathematicians. She has led hundreds of students to love math. She said it all started during Florida State University’s three-year program called Cognitively Guided Instruction and run by Professor Rob Stone. Steele has been in it five years.

“Having professional development was paramount,” Steele said. “I’ve never loved math this much. My kindergarteners have the basic concept of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and fractions. It’s remarkable they know how to do it.”

Steele teaches her mostly 5 year olds by observing and listening to how students think and solve problems. It’s what leads her to design and facilitate lessons that strengthen each child’s knowledge of algebraic fundamentals.

Steele mentors teachers at Wright Elementary and the Okaloosa County School District. She is a mentor for the teachers’ development group, providing instructional materials on the teacher learning website. She has shared instructional practices at district, state, and national conferences and has represented her school as teacher of the year.

Steele earned her bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in elementary education from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Grand Canyon University. She is certified to teach kindergarten through sixth grade elementary education.