Keyokah Mars-Garrick ’22 MA, a special education teacher at Wheeler High School in North Stonington, Connecticut, originally attended Wheeler High as a student-athlete. She was an All-State basketball player and led the team to the state tournament semifinals. Mars-Garrick returned to the school in 2020 as a substitute teacher while researching her next career move and fell in love with teaching and special education students.
“I loved assisting students with their assignments and found fulfillment in providing the help they needed in the classroom,” Mars-Garrick says. As she delved deeper into her career options, she discovered that special education encompassed the kind of support and individualized teaching she truly enjoyed.
With a passion for reading and analyzing books, Mars-Garrick says she realized that becoming a special education teacher was the perfect path for her. She wanted to utilize her strengths to the best of her ability and positively impact her students’ lives.
After researching various options, Mars-Garrick decided to pursue her master’s degree in special education at UConn due to “its accelerated and competent program” through the Neag School of Education’s Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates (TCPCG).
“The program allowed me to achieve my career goals in a shorter time frame,” she says.
Mars-Garrick already had a master’s degree in business management and an MBA from the University of Hartford, where she earned a Division I scholarship as an undergraduate student, and didn’t have time for a traditional program, especially because she was a new mom. Despite being a parent to a newborn, she says she was able to manage and balance her graduate program at UConn.
“I really valued the program and the support I received from my family, particularly my mother, who helped care for my baby during my classes,” she says. “Also, the faculty and staff at TCPCG’s Avery Point campus were super supportive and flexible, and the program was the most streamlined it could get that luckily fit my schedule.”
To find myself in a school that respected that I was a mom first and they would do anything to get me through that experience, I was so grateful. — Keyokah Mars-Garrick
“One class, I had to bring my son because I didn’t have a babysitter, and Professor (Joseph) Madaus was totally fine with it. My son had his dinosaur headphones on while we were in the throes of our statistical presentations,” she says. “Everyone was just so understanding. I was so grateful that I attended a school that understood that. If I didn’t have the same level of understanding and flexibility, I literally couldn’t have done the program.”
“To find myself in a school that respected that I was a mom first and they would do anything to get me through that experience, I was so grateful,” she says.
Sharing Her Cultural Heritage With Students
As a woman of color and a member of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island, Mars-Garrick’s experiences with her cultural heritage started at a young age. She says she first danced at a powwow when she was six months old, balanced on her mother’s hip, and that her grandfather is a former tribal chief.
Mars-Garrick says she was named by her grandmother in the tradition of the tribe. Her mother’s native name is “Little Fern”; from the Fern came a “Pretty Flower,” which is what Keyokah means in the Sioux language.
Mars-Garrick represents her Narragansett heritage by giving back to the community and providing insights into her culture. She says she has always been dedicated to her cultural heritage and enjoys sharing her knowledge with young students.
“When I went away to college, there was a bigger need to educate young children about Native Americans,” she says. “I think many kids think [Native Americans] literally don’t exist.”
As a student-athlete at the University of Hartford, Mars-Garrick performed at powwows and visited local elementary schools to educate children about Native Americans, dispelling misconceptions and promoting understanding and appreciation of different cultures.
In a 2021 Hartford Courant article, Mars-Garrick’s mother shared that she knew her “daughter was blessed with basketball opportunities and that it would take her far and gave her an education.” But she was confident that “Keyokah will always hold her Native American heritage close to her. She’s so entrenched in the culture and keeps that history alive.”
For Love of the Game and Teaching
After graduating from college, Mars-Garrick continued her love for basketball through coaching, including stints at the University of Hartford and the Coast Guard Academy.
When she returned to her high school alma mater as a substitute teacher, word quickly spread that the former athlete was back on campus, and the school’s athletic director approached her about being an assistant coach for the boy’s basketball team.
“She can teach, and she knows the game,” longtime Wheeler High School boys basketball coach Neal Cobleigh told the Westerly Sun in 2021. “She is enthusiastic, passionate, and a natural. She’s a coach, and we needed a coach.”
Mars-Garrick enrolled with the Neag School that summer to earn her master’s degree and teaching certification, and she continued to coach basketball while she was a substitute at the school and enrolled in the Neag School’s program. Last season, 2022-2023, was her last season coaching with the Wheeler Lions, and she has since transitioned to coaching with the Smith Basketball Academy out of Connecticut College.
Throughout her journey, Mars-Garrick says she was grateful for the support she received from others, especially the teachers she had in high school who are now her colleagues. She says their understanding and encouragement made her transition from student to teacher an enjoyable and fulfilling experience.
TCPCG helped me become a special education teacher by creating a rigorous curriculum we would encounter in the classroom and strategies on how to create impactful material for our future students to enhance their educational experience. — Keyokah Mars-Garrick
Looking ahead, Mars-Garrick says she aspires to become an administrator, potentially a principal or assistant principal. She believes that her diverse experiences, combined with her strong educational background, would prepare her for this new role.
Mars-Garrick’s love for her job, her students, and community fill her days with purpose and fulfillment. As she embraces her identity as a teacher, a mother, and a member of the Narragansett Tribe, she looks forward to the future with excitement and hope, eager to make a lasting impact on the lives of those she touched with her passion for education and culture.
“TCPCG helped me become a special education teacher by creating a rigorous curriculum of not only the most important information we would encounter in the classroom, but also strategies on how to create impactful material for our future students to enhance their educational experience,” she says.
If you have a college degree and would like to explore the possibility of becoming a teacher in less than one year, join an upcoming information session for the Neag School’s Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates. Learn more at s.uconn.edu/teach.
To hear more from Mars-Garrick, check out this video about why she likes being a special education teacher.