Associate professor at Lewis University in Romeoville is a role model for future special education teachers

Jennifer Buss: ‘My goal was just to provide more doors being opened’

Dr. Jennifer Buss teaches her class Assessment for Learning at Lewis University on Thursday, April 13, 2023 in Romeoville.

Alyssa Haayer of Batavia called Jennifer Buss her “on-campus mom.”

Haayer is working on a combined education and special education major at Lewis University, where Buss is an associate professor of special education.

When Haayer was 14, she was diagnosed with autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, making her more determined to pursue her dream of teaching elementary school children.

Buss is helping her attain that goal.

“When I need help with anything, academics or not, she helps me out,” Haayer said. “I’ve struggled with academics before, and she helps me break it down. Earlier in my college career, I was having a hard time mentally, and she also helped me out with that.”

Buss said she holds her students to high standards, but her classroom is very accommodating, especially since some of her students have learning disabilities or special needs. She stresses the importance of being not only a good teacher but a good person and role model.

Why is Buss so determined to help her students succeed?

“Because I was one of those kids,” Buss said.

She said she has a learning disability in reading. She could never learn phonics; instead, she memorized words.

“So even to this day, when a new word comes up and I don’t know it, I can’t sound it out,” Buss said. “I have to memorize, visually, what the word looks like.”

Buss recalled being removed from her Catholic school classroom as a child to attend public school, which had resources for her. She’s since participated in the Joliet Diocese Special Education Strategic Planning Committee and the Strategic Planning Committee, according to Lewis University, along with many other committees and organizations to help students with special needs.

‘Me? Teach at a college?

Buss started her career by teaching special education at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville for about six years. She also had five children in five years, including a set of twins – a time in Buss’ life she called “chaos, but a good chaos.”

One day, Buss spoke to high school students at an event about “what their journey could look like” and how “mine was different from everyone else’s.”

She said that event led to Lewis University inviting her to teach an introductory class as an adjunct teacher. Buss said her response was, “Me? Teach at a college?”

But Lewis University felt Buss could “offer future teachers that perspective, that lens,” Buss said. She did well as an adjunct, and then a full–time position opened up.

Buss said she’d just had her fifth child and was nursing her.

Well, she got the job – and Lewis wanted her to work on a doctorate, too. So Buss enrolled in the program when her baby turned 1, took a class at a time over the next five years and wrote her dissertation on the perceptions of students with disabilities in higher education.

“And now I have my doctorate,” Buss said.

Why did Buss take on so much? She said it’s important to not close any doors.

“I had to set a path for not just myself but every other kid,” Buss said. “A learning disability means you’re capable of doing the work. But the work just has to be done a bit differently. … My goal was just to provide more doors being opened with opportunities not just for me but others like me.”

A safe environment

Sarah Markun of Plainfield said she graduated from Lewis University in December and is now teaching third grade at St. Matthew School in Glendale Heights.

Markun said Buss helped her work through anxiety and refine her classroom skills, even teaching “a couple of lessons” to Markun’s current students.

“She was always very open and honest in her teaching and really gave us specific things that will help us in our field, always very specifically tailored to today’s classroom.”

In one of Buss’ classes at Lewis, Markun memorized 400 reading strategies she could tailor to students as needed, Markun said.

“Not only did we get to actually learn and dive a little deeper into those, we were also able to apply them to students we were paired up with in that class,” Markun said. “We were able to test it in a safe environment where Dr. Buss was constantly coaching us on what to do before we actually entered our field of work.”

But one concept Markun learned from Buss stands above the rest.

“Always meet the students where they’re at,” Markun said. “And help them progress from there. I have 17 students in third grade, and all 17 are starting at different levels. And I’m helping them where they’re at and helping them improve from there.”