School Bus Driving 101: Tricks of the Trade

We Pilots of the Big Yellow Madhouse are taught a lot of things on this job: safe driving; passenger safety; responding to mechanical problems and accidents and medical emergencies; student management and discipline; the list is endless and topics are addressed at our annual orientation meeting in early September and a mid-year refresher.

Some things are required to legally operate a school bus, others we learn on the fly from experience or other drivers.

One of my favorite sayings is legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s “It’s what you learn after you know it all that that counts.” I’m getting ready to use that stuff for another school year, my fifth behind the wheel.

See: Five Days That Made Me What I Am

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

One of the never-ending challenges is keeping a bus reasonably tidy. Kids, especially those who leave school in the afternoon equipped with cupcakes, cookies and other goodies left over from class parties, will turn the floor into a recreation of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I’ve had success with my “Trash Back Bonus” program: bagging garbage and handing it to various litterbugs as they get off at school the next day.

One of my fellow drivers gave me another great idea that he uses:

“If they leave the bus a real mess in the afternoon, I leave the trash where it is until the next afternoon,” he told me. “Then I pull over and tell them we aren’t going anywhere until they clean up. Some complain, but others usually start putting pressure on the messy ones. They hate getting home late.”

Pulling over when kids come off the spool has often been necessary, and I still resort to my (hopefully) award-winning Roadside Lecture Series. But I’m definitely calmer about it now. I’ve begun following a suggestion from another driver at my district: She pulls over, pulls out a book and calmly starts reading after telling her raucous passengers that she won’t drive until they settle down. I’ve taken a page from her and told my careening cargo that I get paid by the hour, so I’m happy to have them fund my retirement nest egg.

When they yell, “You’re holding us hostage!” I tell them, “No, YOU are holding you hostage with your behavior.” So far, it has worked like a charm.

Speaking of far, that is usually where I am from a stop when a kid informs me that I missed his or hers. Never mind that I had actually stopped and called it out several times. The dear child in question was usually lost in their earbuds or totally wrapped up in some fascinating mischief. Another colleague of mine has an excellent way of curing repeat offenders. “I make them stay on until the run is over and then I take them home,” he says.

In one case, I found that being left alone with a middle school lass who’d been getting carried away with her friends was an excellent opportunity to talk to her about the importance of not delaying everyone or distracting me.

SEE: A Driver’s Wish — Fraction of the Distraction

Do you believe in miracles? Yes! She actually listened to me, looked contrite, and wasn’t a problem anymore.

Good public relations can be a huge help. I’ve learned that it’s often better to talk to parents (if I can) before I write up a kid. I always say I’m not singling anyone out — there is no shortage of hellions — and it’s all about safety. I’ve yet to have a parent argue with me, and most have told me to keep them informed if their beloved Robespierre or Esmerelda keeps acting up.

Keeping them from acting up isn’t always easy, but I had a chance this past summer to serve as a monitor with a driver who was an ace at engaging kids with friendly enthusiasm. Besides asking them how they were doing, he’d give them a fist bump and even bought them donuts one day after clearing it with their parents. He made my job easy and made me want to be less of a scowling presence up front.

And as a new school year dawns, I’m vowing to get better at remembering kids’ names. As it is, I’m horrible at it, and it’s the same with recalling people in general. But thanks to the good folks of the Facebook group School Bus Drivers Are the Unsung Heroes of the Predawn Light, I’ve been given some nice ways to keep my memory jogged.

I particularly like the suggestion that I try addressing each kid by name and saying “good morning” when they come aboard. I just have to remember to not take grunts or mumbled replies personally.

SEE: Grunt Work: Greetings Can Be a Chore

Of course, there’s always much more to be done. I’m still trying to figure out how to concoct a seating chart that actually keeps the peace, and how to keep urchins in those seats. We are warned early on to never jack the brakes when we feel sorely tempted to deliver a little warning jolt to kids who won’t stop cavorting in the aisles.

Fortunately, my new bus did it for me, thanks to the sensor in front that puts the brakes on if I get too close to something … like another vehicle. The startled look in my passengers’ eyes was priceless.

“See?” I said. “That’s what I’ve been talking about when I say it’s so important to stay in your seats!”

I’ll soon find out if that lesson took. If not, maybe I’ll follow the advice offered by the clerk at my local hardware store who suggested I use a hammer and some three-penny nails.

SEE: School Bus Discipline: Desperate Measures for Desperate Times