What makes special education so special? Well, in Johnson County, at least part of that exceptionalism can be traced to Shelley Armstrong, who will be retiring this spring.

Armstrong has spent her 35-year career, including 17 years in the Johnson County School District, nurturing special needs students with her unique mix of passion, patience and perseverance. And wherever she’s gone in the district – from Meadowlark Elementary to Clear Creek Elementary to Cloud Peak Elementary – Armstrong has made an impact, according to Luke Danforth, Johnson County School District’s director of special services.

“Besides being a great teacher who always put her students at the forefront of her work, she has always been someone her colleagues could rely on and with whom they enjoyed working,” Danforth said. “She has truly made a positive impact on the lives of students.”

Armstrong’s passion for education started years ago when she was still in high school and working at the Buffalo Children’s Center.

“During the day, I would visit and observe the (center’s special education) teacher, Karen Martin,” Armstrong said. “I would watch her work with these kids, and I was fascinated by the patience and passion that she had for this special group of students. After this experience, I knew what my life calling was.”

Armstrong earned degrees in special education and elementary education before starting her teaching career in the Campbell County School District in 1985. She held special education jobs in Wright, Rozet and Gillette before she had the opportunity to return home to Buffalo in 2003.

“I was born and raised in Buffalo, so returning to Buffalo was an opportunity we could not pass up,” Armstrong said. “We have three children, and at the time our oldest was entering eighth grade. We felt that the time was right to return home.”

Armstrong has held multiple special education jobs in the Johnson County district and currently serves as the resource room teacher and fifth grade co-teacher at Cloud Peak Elementary. Armstrong has loved each of the schools she has worked at, but she has especially fond memories of working at Clear Creek Elementary, which is now the Bomber Mountain Civic Center.

“When I think of a special memory from my time with the district, I always remember our teaching time at Clear Creek Elementary,” Armstrong said. “The classroom that I taught in was the same classroom that I attended third grade in. That was a step back in time, but a great one. While there, we had a fun, close-knit group of co-workers and students. I felt like we were in a small country school in the middle of Buffalo. It was awesome. Then, we moved into a beautiful new building, Cloud Peak Elementary, and continued to build new memories.”

Armstrong said that the academic challenges her students face haven’t changed much since 1985 – but neither has the thrill of watching those students learn and succeed.

“The most rewarding part of working in the Johnson County School District is seeing the students that I have helped along the way graduate from high school,” Armstrong said. “I love opening up the graduation insert in May and seeing the faces of those students that are graduating. … I feel great knowing that the students I have worked with have learned something new because I was able to teach them in a way that made sense for them.”

While teaching special needs students can pose challenges, the past few months have brought an extra set of obstacles as Armstrong ends her career amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is tough,” Armstrong said. “It is hard to reach out and help those students who are struggling making connections online. I made home visits to students that may have had a difficult time working from home and from a computer. That is the hard part – not being able to see these kids face to face on a daily basis and just give them reassurance that it is OK, and all they can do is the best that they can.”

Armstrong has few post-retirement plans, although she is hoping to take care of some projects around her house and is considering a trip to New Zealand with her daughter and future son-in-law. But no matter what she does, her time in the Johnson County School District will stay close to her heart, Armstrong said.

“Experiencing and seeing the academic and emotional growth that the students make throughout the year will be something I will miss,” Armstrong said. “I will also miss my relationships that I have built over the years with my wonderful colleagues.”

Although special education will be a little less special once Armstrong leaves, she wants her students to remember that they are pretty special too – and capable of more than they could ever imagine.

“My advice to students is to never doubt yourself or your capabilities,” Armstrong said. “Never give up on yourself. You can do great things and take different paths in your life. Just make them positive ones.”

Stephen Dow covers a variety of beats for the Buffalo Bulletin including the Johnson County Commissioners and JCSD #1. Stephen is a Billings native who joined the Bulletin in 2016.

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