Kay Gilliland

Kay Gilliland, 1928–2013
Tireless Leader for EQUITY in Mathematics Education


In October, 2013, we lost one of our most energetic, long-serving mathematics education teachers and leaders with the passing of Kay Gilliland. The many people she worked with will miss her, as will the countless students she served.


Kay embodied what we have all come to understand as equity and fairness in mathematics education. From the beginning of her teaching career until the end, she was determined that her students should experience the joy and satisfaction of knowing that mathematics was a subject they could master. They responded to her encouragement, warmth, and generosity, but mostly they knew she cared about each and every one of them.

Nancy Kreinberg

Kay Gilliland was born in England but grew up in Los Angeles. A scholarship to Mills College gave Kay Gilliland an extraordinary learning experience. The relationships among music, dance, art and mathematics, were opened up to her. Graduating in 1950, she first taught in Oakland USD at a school serving low-income students. Kay also taught students in Emeryville, CA, San Lorenzo, CA, Washington DC, and Hawaii.

The spark for mathematics really came with Bill Rupley’s class at the University of California, Berkeley. It made mathematics come alive for Kay Gilliland. Kay Gilliland was drawn by her mathematics experience in that class to volunteer to prepare her students for a Saturday Student Conference organized by AC3ME, the local CMC affiliate in the Bay Area. Soon she was serving on the AC3ME Board in various capacities and finally as vice president and president. Of course as president, the Student Mathematics Conference was especially important to her because she wanted this experience for all students and she knew that students who could not afford transportation could not attend on Saturdays. AC3ME agreed to hold the conference on a school day thereafter, and she persuaded the districts to use buses so every student was enabled to attend, not just those who could get there on Saturday.

In 1983, the California legislature passed the Hughes-Hart Act. It included an outstanding course for mathematics specialists, Miller Math, and was based on the work of Bob Davis of the Madison Project, the work of Marilyn Burns, and others. Through this opportunity, Kay learned not only about mathematics and teacher education, but met many of the leaders in mathematics education.

When Kay was a teacher in Emeryville, in order to take advantage of funding then available for “Mentally Gifted Minors” she transported a group of her qualified students to the Lawrence Hall of Science every week. Making all the arrangements for this to happen was no easy feat. While these students were at the Hall, I was one of the fortunate UCB students who had the opportunity to work with them. I taught them to program in a language called PILOT. The students learned a lot and had a great time, but I was the primary beneficiary of this arrangement. When I saw the way Kay respected and believed in the potential of each child, and witnessed how she interacted with them, I was inspired to pursue teaching. Kay was a role model for me, as she was for so many others. I will always remember and cherish Kay for the many good times we shared over the years but especially for her grace and ongoing devotion to educating the underserved.

Rita Levinson

Continuing her determination to be prepared to improve opportunities in mathematics for underserved students, Kay took mathematics classes at California State University, Hayward. Professor John Hancock asked her to work with him on the CMC-N Mathematics Conference. She became vice president and program chair of this Asilomar Conference, working hard to make sure both conference attendees and speakers included people of color and those who taught in low-income schools.

Teaching in EmeryvilleIn 1978, the University of California, Berkeley, concerned that girls were entering the university system without the preparation in mathematics required to enter the majority of majors the University offered, funded the EQUALS project, designed to remedy this situation. Kay volunteered for EQUALS as Mathematics Specialist and became a founding member of the EQUALS staff. The EQUALS workshops encouraged teachers to enjoy mathematics more, to learn ways to help female students to be successful in mathematics, to develop new ways to assess student learning, to avoid tracking, and to become leaders of positive change in the teaching of mathematics. It soon became clear that female students were not the only ones underserved in mathematics classes. Thus students of color and, in fact, all students would benefit from improved, more engaging teaching of mathematics.

image010Over her twenty years with EQUALS, Kay was Co-Director of EQUALS Mathematics Teacher Education, Director of EQUALS in Computer Technology, Director of EQUALS in Mathematics and Technology and Director of 26 EQUALS National Sites. Kay was introduced to mathematics education on an international scale, and made presentations in schools in Costa Rica, New Zealand, Alaska, and China, among others.

Kay never let anything get in the way of putting on a good workshop. I remember one time driving with Kay to do a professional development session with counselors and math teachers and discovering as we were walking into the workshop room that Kay had brought the wrong box of materials from the office. As I was trying not to panic, Kay said not to worry, that the participants would never know if we did not tell them. She was right! We improvised with what we had with us and no one ever knew we made it all up on the spot!

Sherry Fraser

Kay never shied away from leadership in her profession. In 1956, Kay joined the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and over the years accepted volunteer appointments on several committees including Western Region Representative and later Chair of the NCTM Regional Services Committee (RSC).

image12She was also actively involved in the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM). She became Co-Chair of the NCSM Leadership Development Task Force, and Chair of the NCSM Equity Resource Development Task Force. Kay was elected NCSM Western Region Director and then NCSM Second Vice President, followed by First Vice President and Program Chair, President Elect, and President. Since 2005 Kay Gilliland has been editor of the NCSM Newsletter.

I remember Kay facilitating a meeting at the International Mathematics Education Conference (ICME) in 1992 in Budapest on “Women in Mathematics Education”. Kay was able to make all of the thirty women in the group feel as if their contributions were valued. Usually at such a meeting, participants are only interested in what they have to contribute. At this meeting, Kay was able to get participants to focus on each others problems and to value the experiences of others. Kay was a master at facilitating groups.

Diane Resek

image14Returning to her Alma Mater, Mills College, for her final position, Kay worked with graduate students who were doing their student teaching in preparation for a professional responsibility in secondary mathematics. This was the perfect job for her because it kept her in touch with the field, and with young people entering it.

In her last two years, Kay received the TODOS Iris Carl Leadership and Equity award, the CMC Walter Denham Leadership Award, and the CMC-N Leadership Award for her tireless service to mathematics education and children of all ages.

Kay Gilliland seemed to have endless energy and enthusiasm. She seldom said, “No,” to a new task or leadership opportunity. Those who worked with Kay had to do their best just to keep up with her. Kay’s loss to the mathematics education community will be felt in all of the institutions and organizations to which she contributed. It will take MANY people to fill Kay’s shoes.


The California Mathematics Council and Paul Giganti wish to thank the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) for much of the source material for this article.