I wrote the following to a person who worked in our department as they were moving on to a management-level position in another school district. While I do not anticipate retiring for a number of years, I thought it might be good to pass along some words of wisdom I have acquired. I hope you will find them helpful.
What is your mission? For me, throughout my career, the No. 1 focus is always on the safety of students. Nothing else really matters if you don’t focus on this. It doesn’t matter how efficient, clean or nice a facility is unless people know the system is safe. The most important piece about safety is not telling people how safe a bus is; it’s to let your actions and your record do the talking. Keep this first and foremost in your mind when you make decisions on buying buses, hiring staff, selecting bus companies, or talking with principals and parents/guardians.
Take your job seriously—not yourself. Caring for kids is a serious business. Focus on that. Don’t take yourself too seriously or put yourself above the mission. Focus on kids. We are very fortunate to have the positions we have. Be grateful for the opportunity.
Know where your organization and supervisor are going. Know the mission, goals, issues and next steps of the organization and prepare yourself and your department. Unless there are significant foundational beliefs or illegal actions by others, your job is to support the organization and your supervisor. Anticipate the next steps and make sure your department is ready to meet them.
Find solutions. Anyone and everyone can identify issues or concerns—it is those who find solutions to improve things that make all the difference.
Put in the time to know what you need to know and be where you need to be (you will get a feel for this as you progress). I tend to be in the office early to make sure things are running well and then I can anticipate any issues and respond to them while they are small. Be seen and engaged. If there is an issue that could get big (or already is), get involved. Find out what is going on.
Listen—listen—listen. When talking with employees, parents/guardians, school board members, drivers, students or administrators—listen. If they want to meet with you, they have something to say. If you have something to tell them—they will not hear it until they have told you their thoughts. Think of it as a one-lane roadway. Others will not be able to receive your response until they have cleared the roadway of their own thoughts.
The best boss I ever worked for was one who gave me the parameters and general rules of working and then got out of my way and let me do my work. He did need to give me some pointers at times and help me make some mid-course corrections, but he gave me the freedom to run my office/department the way I thought was best. Do the same for your staff. Hire good people; give them direction and encourage them to succeed. Cheer them on when they succeed and celebrate their work, but do not take credit for their accomplishments. Others will know when your staff is successful and that you have a culture in place that allows them to thrive.
How we do things is almost as important as what we do. We generate ideas to make our systems better or more efficient, but the method for implementing any change is almost as important. Whether it be changing policy, procedures or the time school starts, we need to make sure we communicate with stakeholders about the change. We don’t know what the consequences might be for others. Taking time to roll it out and explain the why will help to get public or customer buy-in. The important part is to communicate early and often.
When bad things happen, be there and learn from them. Be seen—be responsive—be caring—be engaged and learn from them. I believe we are up to the challenges if we apply ourselves. We have been given gifts to use during challenging times. Challenges stretch us and have us do things we never thought we would or could do. But we can do them. We can face adversity and challenges, and be better at our jobs because of them.
I have had two fatalities during my career. These have been the most difficult times and I would not want to repeat them. Yet they have been the times I have learned so much about people, systems, processes and about myself. One of the things I have learned is to do all I can to make sure events like these do not happen again. The cost (of a life) is way too high.
Read the book “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” by John C. Maxwell. They’re all true … I try to read it once a year.
When making decisions. You’ll never have all the information you want, but you will have enough. When I am faced with decisions, I think of what is safe for kids and best for the school district. As you learn and grow, so will your instincts. The knowledge you glean from all the situations with which you are faced—the good and the not so good—is invaluable and will serve you well.
When it snows. I am checking the forecast and using the national weather service information (timeline) as much as possible. They’re the most accurate (in my opinion). Know your deadlines to make decisions. Typically you will have the most accurate information just before those deadlines occur.
There are three reasons to close school:
- The forecast (an educated guess of what will happen).
- What it did or is doing to the roads (can we make it through).
- What other school districts are doing (political or “peer” pressure).
Know what your system can do to respond to the weather (close, late start, early dismissal, cancel evening activities—stay in the bunker until spring.)
Base your recommendation to the superintendent on the best information you have at the time—thinking of student safety first—and go with it. You may get push back from the superintendent. They make the ultimate decision, but after a few discussions about the weather, you will get a good feel for where you are and where you need to be.
Be involved in things outside of your department. Participate in school district-wide events, programs and foundations. Be involved in statewide or national organizations that increase your knowledge and influence.
Balance all of your life. This is hard but needed. Balance your work demands with family and life demands. Life is a whole lot bigger than work. Having said that, do what your position requires you to do—or find help to do it. I have said family first for years, but also put in some long days and weeks (seasons) to get things done. Make sure to take time for yourself—use the vacation you have earned—take time to have fun and recharge. You’re no good to anyone if you are burned out.
Transportation systems are big. They require a number of people pulling in the same direction to make them all work. So, work with your team. In education, we are “collaborative” in almost all we do. I like to work with a team on what the problem, issue or schedule is and then discuss how to best meet the needs of the customer. This helps with buy-in from your team as you roll something out, but also gives you a bigger, broader perspective on the topic which will lead to a better decision.
If a school board member or superintendent asks me a question, I give them the answer, but also make sure my supervisor and/or superintendent are aware of the question to know the answer. I never want my supervisor or superintendent to be blindsided by a question from a school board member—especially at a board meeting on live TV.
Keep a positive attitude. This is hard at times. We have had to endure difficult times in the past and will need to do so again in the future. But we also have a track record of successes and getting through challenging times. Have fun along the way, when and where you can (when appropriate). Know that you have control of your own attitude—no one else does.
Your email is not private. I work for a public entity. Upon request, my email messages can be shared. I was taught many years ago that when you write an email make sure you would want it to be posted outside your office for all to read.
Keep learning and improving yourself and your department. When I started driving a school bus in 1977, I had to manually deploy the stop arm on my bus. We drove stick shift buses and kids sat in fiberglass seats. Buses, routing software and communications systems have changed and will continue to do so. The last 10 years have exploded with apps on our smartphones. Our customers want instant information. Sometimes they know about an issue before we do.
Keep up with improving technology and systems, but also ask how these improvements will help you with your primary mission (not all change/technology is helpful). We just launched GPS and an app for parents/schools to track the on-time performance of the bus. It has been a great tool to have the bus app communicate directly, in live time, with parents/guardians and school staff. This app takes the two-way radio call to the dispatcher or to the school/department and puts it in an app. The bus “talks” to all of us. This helps our communication with parents/guardians and school staff and reduces the radio traffic and phone calls for dispatchers and drivers.
These are just a few of the many items I have learned over the years. I want you to succeed in what you do. Use this information as you see fit and please call or email me anytime you need to do so.
Keith is the transportation director for Anoka-Hennepin Schools near Minneapolis-St. Paul. His career spans 42 years and he is a past president of the Minnesota Association for Pupil Transportation, which named him the state’s top administrator in 2015. He can be contacted at email@example.com.