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Changing the Perception of Being a School Bus Driver

Michigan school district empowers staff through professional development

Behind the school bus driver shortage, student and parent behavior issues were second on the list of the biggest challenges student transporters faced at school startups, according to a recent School Transportation News reader survey. However, Thomas Korth, the supervisor of transportation services of Oakland Schools in Michigan, said that student and parent behavior depends on each individual school bus driver.

Korth was previously a route driver for 13 years. He explained that he teaches his drivers to pick their battles.

“You’ve got to be able to make that student feel safe and secure on the bus,” he shared. “It starts and ends with the driver. If the drivers are too hard and they’re yelling about everything, the student doesn’t feel safe on the bus and perhaps feels uneasy about riding the bus. … It’s that consistency of treating everyone the same, but also paying attention to what’s going on in the bus on a daily basis.”

He added that the driver sets the tone by enforcing the rules and expectations set by the school district. But he added that school bus drivers must also realize that students are affected by home life, and they bring that behavior to the bus. Drivers need to be able to manage it.

“I think you’ll always get students that try and act out … but they [might have] challenges at home, so every morning, before they get on the bus, they may be getting yelled at or worse.”

One program Oakland focuses on is driver professional development. Korth explained that he read a recent study about how school bus drivers want appreciation and recognition for their jobs. “Being a school bus driver myself, I understand that component,” he said. “I understand that sometimes drivers are dismissed or [told], ‘You’re only a bus driver.’ I’m trying to change hearts and minds.”

He explained that drivers need to change their communication and professionalism. “Think about who you’re addressing. It’s students, it’s parents, it’s the community, but it’s also the administrators. We have to change the way we communicate,” he explained. “We have to be respectful.”

He said Oakland Schools started a program last year using a communications coach to build the foundation of why communication is important in transportation. Ted Zotos, a certified leadership coach, teacher and speaker, led that discussion in the summer of 2022, focusing on the five pillars of success: Self-confidence, people communication skills, leadership communication skills, verbal communication skills, and positive attitudes.

This year, Oakland Schools is building on the pillars and offering classes on how to implement it through the Transportation Communication Summit. The class is offered three times this school year: Nov. 6, Jan. 9, and May 6. Korth added that the classes will expand upon the book “Energy Bus” and will help transportation staff develop practical ways to improve their professional and personal communication skills. The training is open to any ISD Training Agency within the state, with a goal of opening it up nationwide.

Currently, four of the 18 ISDs in the state are participating through either a streaming platform or video. Costs for each ISD will be shared based on the number of those participating.

“What we’re teaching is the skills of communication,” he said. “We will also have exercises in the room to be able to do group activities. And with that, if the driver feels empowered to communicate differently, I think it’s going to help.”


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Essentially, he said, the goal is to be able to empower school bus drivers, as they have the skills and knowledge to communicate effectively with administrators and/or the community. He recalled an instance when he was driving a bus (Korth has an education specialist degree) and a counselor would board the bus and talk to a student but not address Korth at all. He said the second day it happened he asked the counselor what was going on with that student, to which the counselor responded that it was none of his business.

“She goes, ‘You don’t need to know about it, you’re just a bus driver,’” he recalled. “She said that to me to my face. And I thought that is the perception, unfortunately, that a lot of professionals in education teaching or maybe administrators have. And maybe rightly so, because maybe they ran into a driver that was rude.

“If you empower the driver to have some skills to be able to communicate properly and not take everything personally or not retaliate or lash out, they can get some pretty good communication work done,” he continued. “Where before they’d be hitting roadblocks and setbacks and say, ‘Okay, I’m just a bus driver.’”

Korth said changing the perceptions of others starts with drivers changing their perception of themselves. He added that he thinks this professional development will also help retain drivers, as the county shows its appreciation by investing in each individual. He also said it could also help with recruitment when other drivers get word on what is happening at Oakland Schools and how they invest in their employees.

Deb Trafton, the director of transportation, attempted to do something similar at New Hanover County Schools in North Carolina. Trafton, who was selected as a magazine Rising Superstar and is profiled in the October issue, explained that she started a “Books From Your Bus” program last year. “Many school districts have seen a rise in student behavior concerns causing a burnout of drivers,” she said. “To promote good citizenship while riding a bus and to tie in literacy, our school bus drivers rewarded a superstar rider with a brand-new book donated by community members.”

She added that she worked to spread the word to the public about the book program. This, she said, helped shine a light on drivers as educators and built better relationships with students.

“It was amazing to watch drivers select books based on their student’s interests. They know their kids and the kids loved the recognition,” she said.

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