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A kindergarten teacher in Southern York County School District has received the U.S. government's highest honor for instruction in math.

Deanna Fearon, who has taught in the district for about 16 years, earned a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching — the highest honor for K-12 instruction.

Since 1983, Congress has honored up to 108 recipients each year  who are considered the top in their field.

"I was absolutely surprised," Fearon said of winning the award. "I was flabbergasted."

A York College graduate, Fearon earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education, with minors in reading and psychology. She went on to earn her master's degree in reading from the school, according to a news release.

She counts herself as just one of many qualified teachers in her district and says she owes a lot of credit to her students.

The honor wasn't a surprise to district Superintendent Sandra Lemmon, who noted Fearon would say she is no more worthy than any other.

But for the district, she was an easy choice.

More: Southern York teachers win Shippensburg awards

Critical thinking: Director of curriculum Kim Hughes said Fearon was the one who was taking ownership and moving forward with kindergarten math and science.

Whether it was helping kids see patterns through robotics components or exploring inquiry-based learning, "all of it ties together and helps students become critical thinkers, and that starts from day one," she said.

Lemmon said STEM learning is natural in kids at a young age.

"Kids come in being such curious learners," she said. "They're questioners, they want to figure out how things work, they want to make connections."

"We view the tech component as one resource" — no different than a pencil or a calculator, she continued.

More: Pennsylvania STEM programs recognized at White House

And though there are many  jobs related to science, technology, engineering and math  available now, Lemmon said, the graduating class of 2031 will likely have jobs that don't even exist yet.

Fearon agrees, which is why she focuses on developing skills for the future.

"Something that really stuck with me is, 'Don't ask a child what they want to be but what problems they want to solve,'" she said.

Above all, the kids think it's fun. 

"Students don't even realize how much they're actually working," Fearon said.

Sharing her passion: One of the benefits of receiving the award was the chance to meet other educators who shared her passion for STEM classes.

A month ago, she headed to Washington, D.C., for a three-day conference, which included the awards ceremony, a tour of the White House and the opportunity to work with legislators and other honorees to write a federal five-year plan for STEM education.

More: PHOTOS: Junior Achievement's STEM Summit at Central York

Collaborating with fellow educators on such an important project was an honor, she said, and not something she expected she'd have the chance to do.

"So often, teachers, we don't have that ability to connect and collaborate and meet folks  (from) across the county," Lemmon said.

Fearon said she has kept in contact with a group she met there to start sharing ideas, and they plan to get together regionally to work with each other again.

Appreciating the process: Though  the  application process  was not easy, Fearon appreciated the struggle.

It was a long process that started back in 2015.

At the recommendation of the district's elementary school principal, Hughes wrote a letter to nominate Fearon for the award.

As part of the process, she also needed letters of recommendation from her students' parents.

The feedback the district got was wonderful.

Parents would say how happy and excited they were to hear of the nomination, Hughes said, noting, "I think we got back a letter from everyone," and they included quotes from the students about how much they loved Fearon as a teacher.

"I definitely cried," the teacher said of the messages.

Over a year's time, Fearon  had to record videos of her math and science instruction, along with her reflections on the purpose behind it.

After that, it was a long waiting period before hearing she was the finalist for the area last summer.

Three to five winners each, for math and science, were selected from each state, Fearon said. At the national level, those were narrowed down to two per state — one for math and one for science.

Since Fearon was nominated in the 2015-16 school year, she is the 2016 winner for math. 

More: Three York County teachers are semifinalists for Pa. Teacher of the Year

"We know that teachers grow and become the best teachers they can be through reflection and self-analysis," Lemmon said, so the district saw value in putting her through the application process, even if she didn't win.

One thing Fearon appreciated about the experience was the opportunity for her kids to see her go through something out of her comfort zone.

She shared with them every step of the way, she said.

The process was long, but they saw her do her best and not give up, even though she wanted to at times.

"For them to see an adult do something hard," she said, was a good way to be a role model. 

Fearon's students will accompany her to the next school board meeting, where she'll be recognized for her award.

“We are truly blessed to have such an amazing teacher in our district,” Lemmon said in a news release.

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