It was early last spring when Amber Buss of Fond du Lac started dreaming about something bigger.
She remembers a conversation she had with her husband, Brandon Buss, about the possibility of her beginning classes to earn a bachelor’s degree in special education.
“My passion has always been there,” the 39-year-old mother of two said. “My regret is not going back sooner.”
Buss worked the past few years as a paraprofessional, providing specialized educational support to middle school students in the Fond du Lac School District. Before that, the Roseau, Minnesota, native was working in the same role for the Wittenburg-Birnamwood School District where she said her job supporting classrooms landed in her lap.
She applied to be a school secretary in Birnamwood, where her daughters attended. She didn’t get the position―they hired another candidate from within the district. Three days later, the director of pupil services called and asked if she was interested in working as a paraprofessional. She was invited to “try out” the position for a few weeks. It wasn’t long and Buss was made an official employee.
The experience in the elementary school and her work with a first-grade boy there who needed a full-time aide throughout the day, cemented her desire to work in special education.
She’ll never forget an incredible breakthrough that happened when she was out sick for three days.
“Something clicked” and the boy started functioning without her presence. Though bittersweet for Buss, she was thrilled with the transformation. The boy went from needing one-on-one assistance all day to not needing any special help.
“These small wins and impact on a child’s life are so amazing,” Buss said, adding she left her job at the end of last school year, knowing she’d be a full-time student in fall.
Never too late
Buss describes herself as extroverted and not afraid to talk to people. Still, she wondered how college students’ decades younger than her would react to her as a classmate this fall. She’s happy to report she has an “awesome friend group” and strong connections with the five others at UWO Fond du Lac working toward education degrees.
“I haven’t felt lesser because I’m older,” Buss said. “Honestly, I can bring a lot to discussions.”
The experiences she’s had working at two school districts provides insight into situations that younger students wouldn’t have.
This semester, she personalized her schedule by taking classes in-person in Fond du Lac and online as well as a course in Fond du Lac from a Fox Cities professor who is teaching in real-time on a projection screen (known as point-to-point).
In any spare time, Buss works a couple of shifts waitressing and occasionally as a Fond du Lac School District substitute teacher. She also focuses on attending her children’s activities and events.
Amber and Brandon are parents to two daughters: Piper, 10; and Elaina, 8. The girls seem to be adjusting to their mom being a student like them.
“They both see how hard I am working and sometimes they miss just being able to go and do something spur of the moment,” Buss said. “My husband thinks it’s great that I found my passion and am going through the schooling to accomplish my dreams of becoming a special education teacher.”
Amber’s connections within the Fond du Lac School District helped secure school placements for required clinical hours. Three of the six education students, including Amber, are in middle schools; three are working at elementary schools.
Professor Tammy Ladwig, who is director of alternate careers in teaching and add-on licensure, said Buss pointed her to the special education coordinator for the Fond du Lac School District.
“Amber worked for the district and her willingness to connect me with the correct people was very helpful to the UWO Fond du Lac campus students in this course requirement,” she said. “Students were placed in special education classes in Fond du Lac and also the surrounding areas of Beaver Dam and Waupun.”
Ladwig pointed out that students at UWO Fox Cities campus work with the THRIVE Academy to get the required course hours. THRIVE provides an educational experience and hands-on employment training in soft skills and workplace professional behaviors for individuals with cognitive disabilities.
Ladwig said all pre-service educators―anyone intending to earn a teaching license in Wisconsin―needs to take the practicums course. They also need to design a lesson plan and differentiation plan that they present to the students and work with them on.
Ladwig is excited for the prospects for all of her future educators.
“I look forward to Amber getting her own classroom as a teacher!” she said.