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"Driving a bus is like having to keep track of 65 students in a classroom with nothing but a rear-view mirror."-Nancy Toombs, President, Kentucky Education Support Professionals Association (KESPA)
They are often the first person students see as they begin their school day. They may be one of the first persons to notice bullying behavior. They have the responsibility of safely navigating dangerous highways and local roads to deliver our children to school each and every day. They are more than just bus drivers, rather they play a vital role in getting the learning process started every day.
"He's just a bus driver."
Have you heard that one before? What most people don't realize is how important bus drivers -- and all transportation employees -- are to the education equation. Across the nation in small towns, big cities and everywhere in-between, bus drivers are the first people to greet children on their way to school and the last to bid them goodnight as they drop them back home.
Public school drivers and all employees involved in a district's transportation department have a challenging and comprehensive profession -- one that is becoming more complex year after year. These employees must keep up with new safety requirements, stay abreast of laws and regulations, and pass comprehensive skills tests to hold a commercial driver's license. They must also stay up to date on ever-changing certification requirements for busses and other commercial motor vehicles.
It's not surprising then that bus driver training has long been recognized as an important part of pupil transportation. In fact, school bus drivers are the ESP group with perhaps the longest track record for professional development. Since 1939 there have been 12 national conferences on school transportation which have produced "standards" with regard to pupil transportation.
But what about comprehensive professional development training that helps with the non-technical aspects of the job?
"We care deeply about safety and discipline," says Jill Travis, a 13-year driver from Rockdale County in Atlanta, Georgia. "As drivers, we deal with a lot of traffic and car drivers who 'can't see' a school bus. And too often, a child who is a model student inside the building can become disruptive when he's stuck for 20 to 40 minutes on the bus with an audience." Drivers could benefit by having access to professional development training about issues such as student discipline, she adds, as well as input into the school's discipline process.
Mark Perez, a UniServ Director in Georgia, agrees. "A big complaint is that when drivers go to administrators with disciplinary problems, they get little or no support. Too often these professionals are considered 'just drivers' who have nothing to do with educating a child."
Kentucky Education Support Professional Association (KESPA) President Nancy Toombs says she isn't surprised. When there is a lack of meaningful training opportunities for drivers, she says, many administrators and community members consider transportation personnel as simply "drivers."
But one look at the multitude of skills transportation employees need to do their jobs and the doubters may change their minds. In addition to knowing about buses, these ESP members must be skilled in the computer routing systems used by their districts, versed in communications equipment such as two-way radios and video surveillance equipment and good at keeping track of paperwork, including seating charts, pre-trip sheets, checklists for inspection safety, emergency contact forms and much more.
Toombs says she knows plenty of drivers who have even been asked by their districts to help administer medicine to children as well as document the behavior of "problem" students.
"Driving a bus is like having to keep track of 65 students in a classroom with nothing but a rear-view mirror," she says.
Preparing bus drivers with the skills and personal knowledge required to face the school bus challenges of today is good for students, parents, schools and communities.
And with valuable and relevant career enhancing professional development opportunities, transportation employees can demonstrate just how much more there is to their jobs.
For example, last year more than 500 bus drivers in Kentucky received intensive professional development through a partnership KESPA has with the state's Center for Safe Schools. The trainings centered on new bus safety laws, how to effectively communicate with children, and how to build relationships with supervisors.
"The feedback from participants was amazing," says Toombs, who helped organize the six sessions. "They took the learnings back to their every day work to become better professionals and better employees."
In New Jersey, bus drivers are now better prepared to deal with potential terrorist-related crises thanks to training they received from the Toms River Transportation Association, who organized a workshop that addressed ways school bus drivers should handle violent or life-threatening situations. The sessions included tips for reducing the chance for violence on and around school buses and defusing volatile situations between students.
With better training and professional development in skills that affect their daily jobs, transportation employees are given more opportunities to make decisions themselves and connect with administrators and the rest of the school community.
Because drivers are the first and last school contact children have, they play a vital role in helping to reinforce lessons learned in school. Their jobs are clearly connected to student achievement.
In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, bus drivers in the Pennsbury School District link bus safety activities with the language arts and social studies curriculum for kindergartners.
A bus driver in Midland, Texas, makes completed homework the "price of admission" for students who ride her bus to school, serving to remind students that all school employees are concerned with their education.
In San Diego, bus drivers work personally with parents to understand any behavior problems of the children and willingly try any suggestions that parents make.
In upstate New York, bus drivers developed a reading program called "Riding the Road to Success," where children check out and read books on school buses, drastically reducing discipline issues on the bus and reinforcing the importance of reading.
Vickie Hendrickson, a bus driver in New Jersey's Morris School District, says she makes it a point to connect with students. "I try to find out who they are and where they come from because my primary concern is that the children I serve are safe and happy."
"We are a vital link in the education process," Georgia's Jill Travis adds. "I need to know just as much as the teachers do about the children. What if a child is prone to an asthma attack during an emergency bus evacuation? I need medical details to give EMTs, so they can check on certain kids in an emergency."
Transportation personnel who have participated in professional development opportunities say the best training is a marriage between theory and practice. Safety skills and communication skills for bus drivers especially, are a hot training need.
Adds Toombs: "Where there is good communication between school officials and bus drivers, the whole Transportation Department runs that much more smoothly."
Nancy Toombs, President of Kentucky Education Support Professionals Association (KESPA) -- the ESP branch of the state association, says making administrators aware of what it's like to actually drive a bus has helped change the "just a bus driver" perceptions in her state.
"Several bus drivers did a hands-on presentation at a state superintendent conference in 2002 where the superintendents were actually in the driver's seat with a bunch of screaming kids in the back," she says. "After the demonstration they honestly looked at the bus drivers with new eyes and said they couldn't believe how hard it was to keep control of the kids with all of the pressure of just driving and trying to stay safe."
A similar outcome was achieved in Florida as school board members, assistant superintendents and a PTA president shadowed bus drivers and other ESP members as part of Escambia-NEA ESP's program, "Walk in Our Shoes."
The annual event, held in conjunction with Education Support Personnel Day during American Education Week, raises awareness about the importance of the "behind the scenes" jobs that allow teachers to teach and students to achieve, says UniServ Director Ellen Lawrence.
"It started two years ago in response to a school board member who was pushing privatization for our Transportation services," Ellen says. "We knew if they walked in our shoes, even just for a day, they would realize how important our jobs were."
Escambia County PTA President Cathy Roche said she was humbled by the experience. "I thought I knew what driving a bus would be like from driving my own van with five kids," she said. "But from that point forward, I started saluting bus operators everywhere."
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