Alan Buss can clearly recall telling friends one day during high school a job he’d never want to have.
“I don’t know what prompted it, but I said, ‘God, I’d never want to be a teacher, that’d be the most boring job in the world,’” he told the Press last week.
At the end of June, Buss, now the principal of Badger Ridge Middle School, will retire from a decades-long career in education with memories that are anything but boring. He’s taking with him exhilarating feelings like leading a basketball team to a state tournament run in a packed gym and more relaxed moments, such as impromptu conversations to ask students how they’re doing.
During his 25 years with the district, Buss spent the majority of his time at Verona Area High School, where he at various times filled the roles of school psychologist, dean of students and associate principal. He became the principal at Badger Ridge in 2018.
“It was still the same idea – I just wanted to help students flourish and find ways to build kids up,” he said.
For most of his time in Verona, he was called more than “Mr. Buss” by students – to those in the boys basketball program from 2001-2017, he was also Coach Buss.
He led the boys basketball team to its first state run in history and followed with two other attempts within five years. He also filled in after his 2017 retirement when another coach resigned during the 2019-20 season.
As Buss looks to a life after the district, he looks forward to not having to make decisions. His next job won’t require so many of them – he’ll be restocking beverage displays at his own pace, and visiting his daughter and son-in-law in Texas and watching his sons play basketball – the eldest at Winthrop University in South Carolina, and the youngest at VAHS.
The initial decision to retire was a tough one, Buss said. He repeatedly mulled over whether it was the right time to do so, but ultimately, the pandemic and the continuous challenges it brought to educating students served as an impetus.
“We hadn’t been in a normal situation for over a year,” he said. “When you are in that situation where you have to continually be looking at how are we going to make this work for kids and families … it’s not easy.”
The pandemic also prompted Buss to hold off on his decision to retire – after schools abruptly closed in March 2020 and teacher-student interactions were limited, Buss said he needed to come back for at least one more year and be back in school with students. He called it a blessing that some of Badger Ridge’s students were able to come back in February, and after resuming four out of five days of in-person learning, it was enough where he felt he could say goodbye.
Buss started with the district in 1995 after starting his career at Beloit Catholic High School as a social studies teacher in 1984. He met his wife, Amy, now a curriculum and learning specialist for the district, while working in Mequon, and together, they moved to Verona when she was hired at Verona Middle School – later known as Badger Ridge.
Buss got into school leadership and administration when a former boss, Brian Boehm, had pushed him to see that his coaching abilities didn’t just apply to students. So when a student services department chair role opened at the high school, Buss went for it – and then opted for his principal certification as he transitioned into the final one-third of his career in the dean of students and principal roles.
“It was a challenge I was suited for and ready for,” he said. “I really learned to love middle school kids in the last three years – I think I really developed an appreciation for that age group, and the growth that they make between sixth grade and eighth grade.”
Jamie Thomas, a former school counselor and associate principal at Badger Ridge who started at the school in 2018 alongside Buss, will succeed him in July. Stepping into Thomas’ role will be literary and equity specialist Shayla Glass-Thompson, who has been in the district since 2016.
Badger Ridge students love Buss, Thomas said, especially those who don’t feel like they have another adult in the building to turn to. When Buss works with students who are struggling or are unwilling to speak to other adults in the building, Thomas added, his first strategy is to go talk with them himself.
“You wouldn’t really think that the principal would be the one that students would connect with like that,” she said. “He has students coming to see him in between classes.”
A passion for coaching
Buss first got into the education field through his love for coaching – and realizing another career path wasn’t for him.
He’d majored in journalism when he started at University of Wisconsin-Madison, but he took it as a sign that it wasn’t for him when he nearly failed his first newswriting course his junior year.
As Buss looked for a new career path, he was intrigued by the idea of coaching and – contrary to what his high school-aged self had said about teaching – decided he wanted to work with kids.
At Beloit Catholic, he developed a love for interacting with students both in the classroom and in competition, coaching basketball, volleyball and baseball. He eventually developed a belief that every student wants to achieve success and thrive at school and that he could play a role in coaching them to get there.
“My job, regardless of what the role was, was to help them actualize those dreams and those goals,” he said. “Sometimes we have to give kids consequences, and sometimes we have to have really stern conversations, and it’s amazing how … if you take time to get to know kids, they are going to respond to you.”
Buss said he took some of his coaching principles to his leadership roles – good communication with students and with families, as well as the ability to build a team.
“It isn’t even about the wins and losses, it’s about hearing from kids in the moment, or years later who say, ‘I would have never wanted to play in any other basketball program,’” he said. “It’s the moments with players, whether it’s on the practice floor or in the locker room, where you see it in their eyes, that this is so important to them.”
Shortly after coming to the district, Thomas had been walking along Main Street with Buss during the Homecoming parade – and everywhere she looked, there was someone greeting him or trying to get his attention.
And as people said hello to him, Buss knew exactly who everyone was, Thomas added.
“He’s touched so many lives, that he really is an institution within himself,” she said. “I don’t know anybody who’s worked in Verona as long as he has, and has had roles that have impacted so many different groups of people.”
Thomas said Buss’ strengths as an educator is his ability to build a culture, both within the district and at individual school sites, and connect with some of the district’s most vulnerable students.
“He isn’t the kind of principal who’s just sitting in their office doing things – he’s out and about, and works very hard to build relationships,” she said.
Scanlon worked closely with Buss in his associate principal role, as they brainstormed how to manage student behavior. In those interactions, Scanlon said it was clear how Buss lived out the district’s mission of making sure every student is successful.
“He’s the epitome of that, he’s really taken that to heart,” he said. “He does anything and everything to make sure all students feel welcome, all students are represented and all students have a voice.”