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Teacher with 'big heart' dies from injuries suffered in car crash

Suzy Armstrong had a skill for helping kids with special needs.

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By Eric Stevick
Herald Writer
Published:
GRANITE FALLS -- Suzy Armstrong was drawn to helping children with special needs.
For many years, she taught deaf and hearing-impaired students in Seattle.
Later, she worked with Granite Falls youngsters who needed extra help and individual attention to be successful in the regular classroom.
This fall, Armstrong brought her trademark enthusiasm to a class of special education students with more challenging learning disabilities.
"She just had such a big heart," Granite Falls School District special services director Carol Panagos said. "She wanted them all to be successful."
Armstrong, 52, died Sunday evening at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle from injuries suffered in a head-on crash in the 14300 block on Jordan Road last Thursday. She was driving a Subaru home from work. She had left Monte Cristo Elementary School about 15 minutes before the accident.
Some of her current students are too young or have developmental disabilities that make it difficult to explain the concept of death. They might, however, understand that their teacher won't be able to come back and that it is okay to be sad, school officials said.
"We have to take our lead from our children," Panagos said. "That's sort of where we start. We try to be honest with them, but we limit the depth we go into with the younger ones. We try to answer their questions with simple concrete language."
The driver of a Ford Explorer, a 21-year-old man who lives in that area, was not seriously injured. Collision detectives are continuing to investigate the crash, Snohomish County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said.
Monday was a sad time for many students and Armstrong's teaching colleagues in Granite Falls. A few students went home. Some drew pictures, made cards or wrote letters to Armstrong's family. A few teachers wondered what would have happened if they had just talked a minute or two longer with her after the school day. Grief counselors helped young and old alike process the tragic news.
"We will be taking extra care of the kids and the staff as well," Granite Falls School District spokeswoman Kathy Grant said.
The school district called parents of Armstrong's current and former students Friday after the accident and after learning about her death Sunday. The hope was parents would break the news to their children and know best how to help them.
Armstrong worked in Granite Falls for five years.
Before that, she taught for nine years at the Northwest School for Hearing-Impaired Children in Seattle.
"She was really creative in her lesson planning and what she liked to do with the kids," said Peggy Mayer, an administrator at the school. "When I think about her, I think about her love of nature and the outdoors. She was always bringing in the external world into the classroom and helping the children enjoy her love of the outdoors."
Such lessons included owl pellets for the students to examine and better understand what birds of prey eat.
At Granite Falls, Armstrong was known for tying her lessons to what interested individual students, and for bouncing ideas off of her fellow teachers.
Much of her first four years at Granite Falls were split between Monte Cristo and Mountain Way elementary schools where she was part of a transitional classroom aimed at helping students with learning disabilities mainstream into regular classrooms.
"The thing about her was just how much she really really cared and was such an advocate for the students she worked with," Panagos said. "She took that extra time to learn about her students' personal lives."
Armstrong never shied away from showing co-workers photos of her grandchildren. She enjoyed gardening and growing flowers and was known for her love of animals. She spun wool from her alpacas and kept chickens, ducks, cattle, rabbits and dogs on the family property south of Stanwood.
Detectives are asking anyone who witnessed the crash or the driving of the 1991 green Ford Explorer to call the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office tip line at 425-388-3845.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

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