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School Principal Speaks From Experience on Importance of School Bus Drivers

Editor’s note — Since School Transportation News celebrates its 30th year in print in September, and the pearl is the traditional gift given for 30th anniversaries, throughout the year we share stories and pearls of wisdom from student transportation professionals across North America.

“The biggest lesson, as an educator, that I have learned in my career is how important it is to build relationships with students, to understand their perspective, and to look behind the scenes and see if there are things that students are dealing with, or obstacles that students are facing,” shared Emily Clark, principal at Norman Smith Elementary School in Clarksville, Tennessee.

From the time Clark was a young girl, she said she had dreamed of becoming a teacher. She recalled that her own teachers gave her extra workbooks and lesson plans so she could go home and hold class with imaginary students.

“I’ve never wanted to be anything else other than a teacher, so I’m kind of living out my dream,” Clark said. “I chose to move into the principalship … when I realized that in [this] position I could support teachers and support students in an entire school, instead of just in a classroom. And so that’s been a really fun transition out of the classroom into the world of administration over the last seven years, just getting to connect with an entire school has been very special. I feel like I am in a position where I can help influence change in a positive way.”

Her afternoons as a principal were often spent watching students sit in the hallway and await late school buses due to the driver shortage. To pass the time, Clark said she used to read with the students or teach breathing exercises. She noted that a lot of students rely on transportation, so when buses are late or don’t run, students don’t have a way home.

Clark said for about a year she used to joke with Ron Garner, the transportation director for Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, about driving a bus. After all, she was watching the students after school anyways. She said it wasn’t until last October that the need for school bus drivers became evident for the district. She said Garner had asked her if she was serious about driving and she’s responded favorably.

“It’s been really wonderful,” Clark explained, noting that she started training for her commercial driver’s license in the fall. “I’ve driven several routes now with our students and it is very special. It’s just an additional layer of connection that I have with them now.”

She added that educators seeing students outside of the school building — whether that be on the ball field, their home environment, the grocery store, or the school bus — provides a different lens into the children’s lives. “It gives us additional opportunities to learn more about their interests, learn more about what they are experiencing. And a lot of times when you drive the bus, the conversations are a little different than they are in the classroom,” she shared.

In the classroom, the conversations center around schooling. But on the bus, she added, she can discuss weekend plans or what the students are doing after school. While she drives on more of a substitute basis, she sometimes requests difficult routes to determine if she can get through to the students and offer more bonding time.

“We have one route that has a lot of students that can sometimes have challenges with one another,” Clark said. “A lot of students take a while to build trust with adults, or other students and they need someone that believes in them, and someone that respects them no matter what label, they might have.”

She added that sometimes if someone calls a kid a “bad,” they will start to put that label on themselves and expect to get into trouble as they’re “just a bad kid.”

“We don’t have any bad or good children. We believe that we’re all great and make good and bad choices at times,” Clark explained, adding that she has worked with this group of students throughout the day and explains to them that making mistakes doesn’t make them a bad person.

Clark made the after-school transition from principal's office to behind the wheel to help with the district's bus driver shortage.
Clark made the after-school transition from the principal’s office to behind the wheel to help with the district’s bus driver shortage.

She said that even though these students have a bad day, it doesn’t mean that will have a bad day tomorrow and that anticipated behavior shouldn’t be held against them. “Some of our students on the route that I really wanted to drive, they really need a consistent face, they really need someone that is going to set up a culture of, ‘It’s okay if you had a bad moment yesterday because I believe in you and I love and care about you, and I know that you’re going to do better tomorrow,’” she said.

She explained that she wanted to help establish rules, respect and order on the bus, which is easier for a driver to influence when they are also the students’ principal. However, Clark added because she works with students in the school setting, she sees different sides of student behavior that a bus driver might not have the opportunity to see.

“If every single day is a struggle on the bus for that child, it’s understandable that the bus driver wouldn’t ever see their potential,” Clark said. “All the bus driver ever sees is this child has been blatantly disrespectful, and I can understand where a regular bus driver would say, ‘There’s no way that child’s respectful.’”

Clark added when she has meetings with drivers and students based on behavior challenges, she explains to the bus drivers that the student doesn’t react that way in the classroom, and the school bus could be a trigger. She encourages drivers to create a mentor program to try and establish good behaviors on the bus, but she added it’s hard when drivers are sometimes only interacting with students for a short period of time.

“I’m in the building with them all day long and their teachers are with them all day long, so I see both perspectives,” Clark said. “And it’s a challenge when you can only see a kiddo for a little while and you want them to do their very best. It can be very frustrating when you work so hard with a student, it doesn’t always fix overnight.”

Clark advises other principals or administrators to give bus driving a try. She said for those who are already considering it but are apprehensive, proper training can make all the difference. Clark added she had no experience driving a commercial vehicle or heavy equipment but went into the training with an open mind.

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She noted that while she was nervous to get behind the wheel, she attributes her success to district driver trainer Staci Cogdill. She said Cogdill helped build her confidence and continuously made her feel comfortable during the entire process.

“If there’s someone that has considered being a bus driver, but they’re worried about the size of the bus or they’re worried about the passengers on the bus or about being a safe enough driver, you can learn all of those skills to feel comfortable to safely transport students,” Clark said. “If there’s a principal or a person in the community that wants to take that next step, I say absolutely go for it because it’s possible, and you can have support to be successful.”

She continued, “I would say if there’s someone that is able to be assistance to a school district in the form of a bus driver, it is a very special role and the work of a bus driver leaves a lasting impression on students, even for the few moments in the morning and in the afternoon. A bus driver does make a difference, a bus driver is a positive role model. And no role is too small to be a part of a child’s life in a successful, positive way.”

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