An Illinois school employee is retiring after a “rewarding” 35 years of driving school buses and training almost 1,000 drivers.
Jill Winger, a longtime employee of the transportation department of Rockford Public School District 205, told STN that she picked this career because she was off when her children were off and could spend more time with them. That motherly instinct carried over to her job. For every one of the 887 school bus drivers she trained, she said, “I was like a mother to them.”
Winger has been driving buses since 1978. In 1983, she started driving for the district, which uses 235 drivers covering 202 routes to transport 23,000 students per day. She also began mentoring drivers, until the position of driver trainer opened up in 2002 due to a sudden death.
“I was chosen to be the trainer because I had been a mentor before that and I was very well aware of all the rules and regulations on the road,” she said, “But then I had to put that all together overnight and build a training class.”
Winger recounted how her first class consisted of 22 people, some of whom are still driving for the district. She has since completed over 125 training classes.
Terminal Manager Brian Scott told STN that Winger trained over three-quarters of the district's current drivers. Driver Mike Williams shared how Winger even trained the current executive director of transportation, Mike Slife, who came to the district from the Illinois State Board of Education earlier this year after serving the past several years as state director of transportation. “The director Jill worked under for years retired a few months ago, and the new director came in and didn’t have his CDL, so she had to train him to be able to get it,” Williams said.
“My goal in my training was to train somebody safe enough to drive that I would trust them to haul my grandchildren,” said Winger. “So they had to be the best of the best.”
“You can’t be a slacker and be a bus driver,” she added. “You got too many lives—kids, pedestrians, other drivers.”
She stressed the importance of patience and thoroughness with the drivers she trained. “I didn’t give up on them—I kept going over and over with them until they became coordinated with driving and watching the road and watching the children,” she said. “Every person is different, you can’t treat the whole class the same way.”
Furthermore, Winger realized the importance of attitude in the individuals who came in for her training. “I try to discourage the people who don’t really like children, who are just here for the money and the job,” she explained. “They’re not only miserable, but they make the children miserable.”
After training a driver, Winger said, she made it a point to see them off on their first route. “I was kind of like a mother to them. ‘Make sure you stop at the railroad tracks. Make sure you use your hazards.’ So I kind of guided them along, then in a few days I would sit down and talk to them, if they had any concerns or anything,” she recounted. “It always made me proud to see them for the very first time drive off down the road. It was just awesome to me. I felt accomplished.”
“She is always looking out for her trainees and helping them become safe and successful members of our transportation team,” Scott confirmed. “I have worked with Jill on a daily basis for about 15 years and have found her to be caring and encouraging,” he added.
“She’s trained close to a thousand people—that’s a lot of lives to affect,” Williams said appreciatively. “She’s loved by a lot of people.”
Winger has also been the district’s co-dispatcher since 2002. “In her role as a dispatcher, she is a daily presence on the radio for the entire staff. Her presence on the radio has been reassuring to new drivers and veteran drivers alike,” shared Scott. “That daily presence will be missed.”
“The job has been very rewarding to me,” Winger said. “I feel very accomplished at the end of my 35 years.”