School Bus Driving Tips: 10 Gold Nuggets

Now that I’m in the home stretch of my fifth year behind the wheel of a big yellow box of pandemonium, it seems like a natural time to look back on all that I’ve learned. And as my sainted mother used to say, “You only learn by bitter experience.”

These are the 10 things I wish I had known or at least fully taken to heart when I started in February 2018. Many I have written about at greater length during the three-plus years I’ve been squeezing out this blog, which by the way …

(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.)

1. Expect the unexpected

Vehicles, pedestrians and kids running late for your bus have a way of sneaking up unseen on all sides or suddenly stepping off sidewalks into your path. Animals dart out into the road where you can quickly come upon objects you don’t want to hit but have no room to swerve around. It helps to be prepared to deal with mechanical breakdowns, fallen trees that leave you sitting for the better part of an hour while your precious cargo grows antsier by the minute, panic-causing insects (spiders, especially) and, of course, unruly or downright bizarre behavior. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll see something new … like the fourth-grader on my bus who got his thumb caught in the metal latch tab of a seat belt and had to be rescued by a crew from the nearest school I could find. (They cut him loose and took him inside to remove the tab from his hand … how exactly I don’t know, but he still had the thumb the next time I saw him.)

SEE: Five Days That Made Me What I Am — Ready for Anything

2. Never rush

I well remember feeling stressed when I was running late. Maybe I had been delayed in the bus yard by a mechanical problem. A kid or three were slow getting to their stop. Traffic was jammed or a light got stuck on red and I couldn’t move even with permission from my dispatcher. No matter what the reason may be, I’ve learned I can take a deep breath and remind myself that I’ll get to wherever I need to go when I get there. No one is going to get mad, and even if they do, I ignore them. Better late than never. Safety first.

SEE: School Bus Driving 101: Training Wheels | Shake Hands With Slack Adjusters | The Dreaded Road Test

3. The parking brake is your savior

It’s very easy to forget to engage it after you stop and then have the bus roll forwards or backwards, often while kids are getting on or off. I’ve heard stories of drivers whose buses hit parked vehicles or buildings. One even crashed through a chain link fence. Those drivers lost their jobs. So I’ve never forgotten something one of my trainers told me about that all-important yellow knob on the dashboard, “That’s your career right there.”

SEE: Tricks of the Trade

4. Do not brake check misbehaving kids

When our precious cargo is cavorting in the aisles and jumping over seats and we’ve gone royal blue in the face telling them to sit down, the temptation is strong to hit the brakes and give the rascals a jolt of reality. But drivers who did so have been brought up on charges of child endangerment, including one fellow in Colorado who had warned his passengers that he was going to show them exactly why not remaining seated was dangerous. The frightened kids told their parents and an uproar ensued. So lay off the brakes. Go slow instead if you can. I’m lucky to drive in a rural area with long stretches of empty road where I can slow to a crawl if things get wild in back. “The worse you behave, the slower the bus goes and the longer the trip takes,” I tell my hellions. I’ve got them trained. They notice when I slow down and get the message, especially if I pull over and sit.

SEE: The Roadside Lectures Roll On

5. Make your hourly wage work for you

When things get crazy and too distracting to continue, simply notify your dispatcher that you are finding a safe place to pull over and sit until sanity returns. Then do paper work. Pull out a book or newspaper and read. Give the Evil Eye. Make your passengers clean up if they’ve been spreading trash and crumbs. But take your time and keep ’em guessing about when you’ll move again. (If you reveal a set time out, they’ll just act crazy for however long you’ve said.) “I get paid by the hour and am happy to sit here all day,” I’ve told my rollicking crew, “so you are now funding my luxurious lifestyle and opulent retirement.” When they whine that they are hungry and need to get home or use the bathroom, I simply tell them, “If you want to get home on time, stop acting like jackasses.” (An unfortunate word choice, perhaps, but I drive middle schoolers who utter far worse things and sometimes you gotta talk a little like they do in order to drive home your point.)

SEE: Curses! From the Mouths of Babes

6. Keep a paper trail

It’s a frustrating fact of this life that no matter how many times you report or write up your hooligans, it can seem like nothing is ever done to make them stop. Schools and even bosses may not take you seriously or back you up. So talk to parents if you can. (I always tell them I’m not picking on their kid, I’m just concerned that their precious one is putting himself or herself and everyone else in danger by running amok while I am trying to drive.) Keep copies of your write-ups. Keep a journal with dates, times and notes about incidents and ongoing bad behavior. Write detailed letters to the principal listing your concerns and keep copies. God forbid you should be called on to defend yourself, but it will be a relief to have material to substantiate your side. Your persistence can get incorrigible kids removed from your bus. Just don’t let the, um, bastards grind you down.

SEE: Wrong and Write: The School Bus Justice System

7. Do everything by the book

Kids are always watching you and even monitoring your driving, even how fast you are going. (One wisenheimer kept making a noise like tires screeching every time I went around a corner…) They talk to their parents about you. They often use their phones to record you and anything that is going on. No matter how challenging things get, keep calm and know that the on-board cameras are your best friend. They are insurance against They Said/You Said scenarios, and kids, little dears that they are, will always insist they didn’t do or say something appalling that is right there on video for their parents and school administrators to enjoy.

SEE: The School Bus Camera’s Eyes Have Seen It All | Dealing With Parents

8. Stay focused

Zoning out is very easy when you drive the same roads every day or have long stretches without a stop. Force yourself to think about what you are doing in the moment. If you catch yourself enough times, you will train your brain to not get lost in thought (and train yourself to not get lost en route because you missed a turn). Limit distractions by constantly reminding yourself of your priorities. A kid being dropped off or picked up is always Number 1. Everything else can wait, especially responding to cries of, “Hey, Bus Driver! Butch is putting peanut butter on Maggie’s head!”

SEE: Route Hypnosis is Not the Way to Go | A Fraction of the Distraction

Assigned seats are helpful for keeping your mind on the road, but where you want to put your most rambunctious urchins is up to you. The most common practice is to make them sit in the front row — in the Honored Student Seat or, as one Canadian driver calls it, The Penalty Box. I’ve found that I prefer to keep my hooligans in back because they usually don’t improve their act when they are moved up front where I am now more aware of everything they do, including wrestling, fighting and using bloodcurdling language. I just let the cameras and write-ups ultimately do the heavy lifting. But according to an informal poll I conducted with several driver groups on Facebook, the front is preferred to the back by 36 percent to 19, with 33 percent of respondents saying the middle or “it depends.” Of course, I’ll bet that all of us identify with the 12 percent who replied with things like, “On the hood, preferably” and “In the principal’s office” and “Prefer they stay home.”

SEE: Student Management, Assigned Seats and Sanity

9. Stay calm and drop the bomb

It’s jolly hard to do when your blood is boiling over the defiance and disrespect the little angels are showing you, but never take anything they say or do personally. Kids are creatures of impulse that do not think about consequences. And there is usually more than meets the eye with many of them. Some come from horrendous homes. Some are facing pain and fear in school. Some have medical issues of which we aren’t aware. So stay calm. I’ve learned that in the worst cases, yelling at them doesn’t do any good. It’s better to just quietly drop the bomb on them later by writing them up or refusing to them a favor. (Funny how often they will ask for one right after you’ve read them The Riot Act.) Talk to and get to know them if you can. Some may not respond, but some may open up and pour their hearts out. I’ve been surprised to develop warm relationships with kids I was sure saw me only as some stern old fart, “The Man” they wanted to stick it to.

SEE: Picking Your Battles With Kids

10. Never think positively

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve invited immediate chaos simply by telling myself or someone else, “Gee, things have been going well lately.” You’d think I’d learn by now. Maybe during my next five years…

SEE: The Perils of Positive Thinking

Now Hear This: Rockin’ the School Bus PA

Of all the tools available to us pilots of pandemonium, the public address system on the bus is by far my favorite. Sure, using it for the sake of crowd control is often futile, but there’s just something about the way it fills the cabin with my commands that makes me feel like I have some authority.

(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.)

OK, I confess that I feel drunk with power whenever I seize that black microphone on the dashboard and make a thundering pronouncement in my best Voice of The Almighty.

See: They Ain’t Makin’ Drivers Like They Used To

“Attention! Will the congregation please be seated!” I intoned to my milling passengers as we were about to leave Bubblefish Middle School. “Please find a pew so we may depart. Bless you.”

Based on my experience driving kids who are between the ages of 8 and 15, it’s best to keep your messages clear and simple. Sarcasm and irony are lost on them.

“Hey, Robespierre! I didn’t know you had a seat allergy,” I declared as the energetic fourth-grader ran amok one afternoon.

See: Student Management, Assigned Seats & Sanity

“What?” he replied amid a sea of similarly curious faces.

“Do seats give you a rash on your caboose?” I inquired. “You never sit on them!”

“Huh? What?” he asked, looking genuinely mystified like his peers.

Driven to order my middle school hellions to sit down for the hundred-and-umpteenth time, I went on the PA and cheerfully said, “You probably haven’t heard, and I know this will seem hard to believe, but the school district has a rule about leaving your seat while the bus is in motion. Yep, it’s true! And just in case you do leave your seat, I’ve been given some nifty forms to fill out so you can visit the office and have a nice chat about it with your principal.” 

See: The School Bus Justice System

Needless to say, they started to tune me out about halfway through this vital public service announcement and were back to cavorting in a jiffy.

My intermediate schoolers were baffled when I told them, “Hey, I just want you to know that the seats are free! We won’t charge you to sit on them. Best of all, they don’t bite. Try one today!”

Naturally, they did not.

On the last day of school, I plan to say: “Hey, I want you all to do something you haven’t done all year. Take a seat. Try it! You may even like it!”

See: How I Won the School Bus Garbage War

I confess that frustration occasionally gets the better of me and soils my professionalism. After several tries at commanding fifth-graders Ignatz and his pals Stitch and Satch to plant themselves in their assigned seats, I grabbed the mic and demanded, “Will you stooges in the back sit down! Come on!”

Gales of laughter ensued — “The bus driver called them stooges!” (I later nicknamed them: “Ignatz & The Stooges”) — but lo and behold the offenders did park their posteriors … at least for a few minutes.

Not that I condone the use of force, mind you, but I have threatened to seize my heavy duty staple gun and fasten rowdy children to their seats by their pants. I’ve also informed perpetually wandering fourth-grader Jehosaphat that I happen to have a handful of three-penny nails and a sturdy hammer and will be coming forth to affix his wagon, so to speak.

Being a man of immense dignity, I can say it is deeply rewarding to bark orders over the PA, get no reaction, and be told by the kid sitting behind you, “You’re holding the mic backwards.”

Likewise, it inflates the old self esteem to bellow furiously without realizing that the PA’s switch has been flipped to “External.”

One morning while waiting to unload the bus at Helga Poppin Intermediate, I thundered, “Settle down back there! I’m sick and tired of telling you knuckleheads to stop jumping on the seats!” … only to be informed by Principal Diesel that my anguished cry had been trumpeted to the mob of students and teachers outside the school as well as the other drivers. 

Sadly, my PA system has died, probably from overuse. Integrated with the AM/FM radio, which also conked, the entire unit must be replaced. While I wait for a new one to be ordered and installed, I’ve been reduced to asking a cooperative student to relay my commands — “Hey! The bus driver says you numbskulls have to stop running around!” — or screaming myself hoarse whenever I see dancing in the aisles, things being thrown, arms sticking out windows, and steel cage wrestling matches.

Of course, miscreants far in the back are out of earshot no matter how loudly I shriek, so I’m thinking about getting a bullhorn … with a siren on it.

By golly, I’m going to make them listen to me one way or another … or expire trying.