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Special ed teacher still there for students at age 80

Shelley O'Dowd stands for a portrait Oct. 28 at Pennfield High School in Battle Creek. O'Dowd became a teacher after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1962 and has been a special education instructor at Pennfield Schools for the past 36 years. The thought of retirement crossed her mind over summer break as Pennfield rolled out its Return to Learn plan, which gave teachers the option of working remotely from home. Despite some encouragement to retire from family and friends, she opted to return for the 2020-21 school year, (Alyssa Keown/Battle Creek Enquirer via AP)

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — Special education teacher Shelley O’Dowd was working in the staff lounge at Pennfield High School on Oct. 23 when she was called upstairs to assist with something.

It was a ruse.

When O’Dowd returned, she was welcomed by 80 balloons, 80 donut holes and a birthday cake with 80 candles.

“Unbelievable,” O’Dowd said of her birthday surprise. “I feel this is such a loving family I come to see every day. No wonder I love coming here.”

O’Dowd was born Oct. 23, 1940, in New York City. She became a teacher after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1962 and has been a special education instructor at Pennfield Schools for the past 36 years.

The thought of retirement crossed her mind over summer break as Pennfield rolled out its Return to Learn plan, which gave teachers the option of working remotely from home, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer.

O’Dowd survived a bout with lung cancer four years ago and, at her age, is considered to be a risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Despite some encouragement to retire from family and friends, she opted to return for the 2020-21 school year, teaching her students with individualized education plans through a computer screen.

“I never felt fear about this COVID. I wear my mask, wash my hands a lot and try to be smart,” O’Dowd said. “I started full-time 36 years ago and have never been able to stop because I think Pennfield is one of the best schools, with the most loving, dedicated teachers and staff. There is so much love and commitment in this school. In 36 years, there has never been a day I don’t want to be here. I feel so blessed.”

Pennfield High School principal Tom Faber said O’Dowd has been a willing learner as teachers have adapted to using technology more in their curriculum through virtual meetings and online document sharing.

“She has a deep heart and cares a lot about the kids,” Faber said. “She cares about them and wants them to do well. And she’s working, in some cases, with some students with some high needs. She’s gone two generations with some families.”

Pennfield High School special education teacher Janie Sare credited O’Dowd with inspiring her to get into the field after she had subbed for her classroom.

“She had seen me with some of the kids and said, ‘I think you are meant to be in special ed.’ So I went back to school, got a master’s degree in special education,” Sare said. “She can always give me advice. I always go to her for words of wisdom… She has so much compassion and patience for kids with special needs.

Sare calls O’Dowd her “school mom.”

“She keeps positivity in my life,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and, no, I don’t plan on teaching until I’m 80, but I see she still has purpose here, to motivate us to keep chugging.”

O’Dowd said she feels a connection to her students, in part, because she herself has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She said she was not an exceptional student while attending East Grand Rapids High School but was fortunate to get into Marymount College and eventually the University of Michigan.

After teaching in Yonkers, New York, for five years, O’Dowd and her husband, Ed, moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where she earned her master’s degree in special education for cognitive impairment from Northern Michigan University.

O’Dowd had four children and spent 10 years as a stay-at-home mom. She then spent a year teaching at Starr Commonwealth in Albion, which paid for a master’s degree from Western Michigan University, this one in special education for emotional impairment.

After subbing in the region for a few years, she was hired by Pennfield Schools in 1984.

O’Dowd’s three daughters became special education teachers in west Michigan, and she is a proud grandparent to 13.

Currently, O’Dowd has 18 students on her case load. Although she doesn’t get to see them in person, she said she is grateful to remain a meaningful part of their lives.

“I so love what I do and I try to learn more all the time,” she said. “To get to know my kids is huge. Developing a relationship every year is so important because they want to learn when they know you love them.

“I feel so blessed. I cry a lot,” she said. “On my 20-minute drive in I get teary to have a job I love so much. I can’t imagine not being here, and God has helped me be healthy enough. I don’t have gray hairs. I think I’m meant to be here because he put me here and he’ll tell me when to leave.”

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