Making math make sense

Mount Holyoke graduate alum Lachanda Garrison begins a prestigious fellowship to advocate for STEM and military families and to help make American classrooms stronger.

Lachanda Garrison MATM’19 ended up at Mount Holyoke completely by chance. She first heard of the Master of Arts in Teaching Mathematics (MATM) program while listening to a podcast that featured Mike Flynn, former director of the Mathematics Leadership Programs at the College. “I was shocked that there was a mathematics degree you could get to support educators and coaches,” she recalled. “I thought, I have to do that. That’s what I need to do!”

At the time, Garrison was teaching at Rota Elementary School in Rota, Spain, a Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) school, which is a United States school system that ensures children of military parents are able to continue their education, regardless of deployment abroad or being stationed stateside. She had just become a new math coach and was interested in gaining skills to become a more effective one. She believed the program at Mount Holyoke could provide that for her.

Six years later, Garrison jokes that the MATM program is the gift that keeps on giving, and she isn’t wrong. The skills she learned have catapulted her into the education field in ways she never imagined. She’s been a conference presenter for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2020 and was named DoDEA’s State Teacher of the Year in 2021.

“[MHC] opened so many doors personally and professionally. I had amazing mentors like Polly Wagner and Mike Flynn, and my classmates were incredible — I learned just as much from them,” she said of her time on campus. “I don’t think I would be where I am, feeling confident enough to be a teacher leader in this space, if I didn’t do the Mount Holyoke MATM program.”

Garrison is just getting started. This summer she was one of 16 teachers to be named an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. This year-long experience, which began in August, has embedded her in the United States Senate as she shares her expertise on mathematics, teaching and what she believes it takes to help other educators gain leadership skills inside and outside of the classroom.

The MATM program was created to support K–8 educators and math coaches wanting to hone their mathematical skills and become stronger teacher leaders. The program is two full years and 32 credits, and classes happen in the summers and during the school year. The school year courses are online, and students can choose to come to campus in the summer for those courses. The degree program helps educators understand how to shift the curriculum to meet the needs of individual students, introduces students to new research from the field of mathematics and helps them participate fully in mathematics communities at the local, state and federal levels.

“Our program helps students get better at mathematics but also helps them consider where else they might want to take their mathematics career. We need educators like Lachanda to get involved at the legislative level and advocate for how it’s taught and therefore understood by students,” said Marria Carrington, director of mathematics leadership programs at the College. “We’re asking ourselves, ‘How do we make sure folks have good math stories?’ Doing so empowers teachers and coaches to reflect on their own experience and get better for themselves, and then that impacts the students.”

Growing up, Garrison enjoyed the challenging aspects of mathematics. Although the subject didn’t come easy for her, she appreciated that it provided clear steps to solve a problem while also providing an opportunity to branch out and find the same answer in a variety of ways. She also loved the classroom, and as a military spouse, got involved in DoDEA classrooms in any way she could, whether it was serving as a lunch monitor or a teacher’s aide. And even though she knew she’d eventually make it to the classroom full time (and she did for 14 years), she says being able to collaborate with the federal government in this way is an opportunity of a lifetime she never expected.

For more than 30 years, Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellows have played a critical role in how legislation about education is shaped and passed. The 16 educators hold positions in U.S. congressional offices, the Department of Education, the Library of Congress, the Department of Defense, the United States Geological Survey, National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The fellows serve as STEM teaching experts who advocate for students, teachers and education communities across the globe. Fellows are able to see how educational programs are created at the federal level while also sharing their perspectives as industry professionals.

Garrison is especially proud to be able to represent military spouses and families who experience a particular type of transition challenge when having to move abroad and still keep up with United States curricula.

“Military families are extremely important to me because that’s the culture I grew up in. There are so many beautiful challenges and strengths to that culture, like having to move multiple times or being a new kid all the time,” she said. Garrison attended five elementary schools growing up. “Having the ability to advocate for and bring awareness to what our military families are going through brings me pleasure. It’s the entire family that deals with deployments and misses their family members around holidays. Truly the whole family serves.”

Garrison will spend the rest of the year and part of 2024 in Washington D.C. She’s most excited to have her voice heard in such a meaningful way because she remembers times when she was in the classroom and didn’t feel her concerns were being heard by administrators and others outside the classroom. She’s also looking forward to learning up close how the government works.

She said that after the program, “the sky’s the limit.” She is keeping her options open, including returning to the classroom. “I love teaching, I love children and I love being able to collaborate with educators; I don’t see that changing. But I’m also in a season where I can go anywhere, do anything and be anything.”