Servant leadership, in which the leader’s main goal is to serve its employees, is an extremely important concept to running a school bus service. The COVID-19 situation has only made management in the school bus transportation industry that much harder.
Protocols change frequently, and many people are concerned about their careers and personal health, plus demanding parents are also a challenge. And managing a large group of drivers, mechanics and support personnel can be very demanding. But with strong and positive leadership and a genuine desire to care for others, success can be achieved. Most truly successful leaders look for ways to make a positive difference in the lives of the people in their organization. These types of leaders want everyone to be successful.
An important goal of a successful school bus administrator is to respect employees and allow them to add input into the process of providing good service to school children. It is critical to work hard to win buy-in from employees to run a successful school transportation operation. Effective and experienced leaders will say you should listen to what people working in the field are saying. For instance, the STN 2019 Transportation Director of the Year Greg Jackson at Jeffco Public Schools in Colorado prides himself on growing his employees to the highest rank they wish to achieve.
School Transportation News spoke with three other leaders from across the country to share their leadership values and how the pandemic has forced them to adapt.
Jim Beekman is the general manager of transportation services for Hillsborough County Public Schools, which includes the City of Tampa. Before COVID-19, the district had 837 routes and transported 86,000 children a day. Now, it operates approximately 770 routes for about 50,000 students a day.
Beekman said he works hard to be involved with everyone on his staff.
“I am very hands-on. When I came, there were some major problems with leadership and employees and I worked to solve them,” said Beekman, who is also the president of the Florida Association for Pupil Transportation.
He added that he believes it is important to help everyone become a stakeholder in the organization and to encourage frequent staff feedback.
“You have to be a servant leader and you have to look after people’s needs,” he said. “It needs to an upside-down pyramid where the leader works to serve the needs of the frontline people. If we take care of their needs and people understand they are being taken care of, they will buy-in and get the job done. You buy-in to them and be sincere and they will buy-in to you.”
Beekman said he believes it is important to get personnel to believe they are needed by the organization. “We want our drivers to become involved with the school they are driving to every day and engaged with the kids. We want people to know and understand the difference they are making and how they can help each other. I want to get my employees to be engaged,” he said.
And Beekman knows it is not always easy. He remembers dealing with disgruntled and angry employees, some of whom were very outspoken when he began as general manager. “I had to make some changes on the leadership team because they were being horrible to employees,” he confessed.
Beekman said he wants to make sure that all of his employees have the tools they need to be successful. He also wants to prepare and develop his employees, so they are ready for more responsibility and promotions. And he realizes even the best people will make some mistakes or may not meet all expectations.
“I want people to learn from their mistakes and become better,” he said.
However, if an employee does not work out, Beekman considers it a failure of leadership. He said he believes efforts must be put into helping people become successful at their jobs and that people should be given a chance to succeed. “We are working to develop a family atmosphere here,” he concluded.
Compassionate and Pragmatic
“I started here five years ago, and I had to get buy-in from the drivers,” said Kim Crabtree, the director of transportation for Bend-LaPine Schools in Oregon. The system has about 145 drivers and the students have since returned to the classroom. Students in grades 6 through 12 are attending on a hybrid basis and students in grades K through 5 are attending on full days.
“It is about putting your employees first and giving them the support they need on the job. I don’t believe in managing from top-down,” she added. “We allow them to give us input. We make them feel valued as much as we can.”
Sometimes being a manager means you have to make demands for people, but Crabtree said she still always tries to be as compassionate and understanding to drivers and other personnel as possible. She works to listen to their side of a situation. She wants her drivers to really, really care about children.
“I have never believed in using an iron fist or that barking orders work well,” said Crabtree. “We involve our drivers in many decisions. We have them meet the principals of each school. We want the drivers to feel connected to the school. I always allow input from the drivers.”
If a driver is having problems with parents or students, Crabtree tries to help. She recalled an instance of parents’ vehicles clogging the loop at a school, where children were also being picked up by the school bus. This caused frustration for Crabtree’s drivers.
“I contacted the school about this situation. We were able to get a newsletter out and we said there is a loop for the buses,” she shared. “We have contacted the schools and we want to make sure cars are not intermingling with the kids getting on the buses. There is a designated bus loop and a car loop. We worked with parents and the school to solve the problem.”
Crabtree said she understands there are challenges and frustrations for drivers, parents, and students who are going back to school. The district has begun vaccinating drivers to help protect them from the virus. The drivers receive all the personal protective equipment they need. There has been limited in-person instruction in the district and it has been going well. Everyone on the system who wants a COVID-19 vaccine can now get one.
If a driver has trouble with a student a therapist may have to be brought in to help with the behavior challenges. “We don’t want to kick kids off the bus. We do a lot of training and retraining. We want to help our drivers succeed,” she explained.
If a major problem, such as an accident occurs, an investigation is conducted and an effort is made to treat the driver fairly. There is a committee that reviews each accident whether it is major or minor. “We discuss possible solutions. We talk about the incident and look at what could have been done differently,” said Crabtree. “We are always looking at what we could have done to improve. We support our drivers, and we give them a chance to be heard.”
Crabtree shared that she believes a good transportation leader has severed in various roles within the organization. “I have done most of the jobs in this business and I respect the work that people are doing. My door is always open. You need to listen to people and be compassionate. People want to be heard. We have micro teams to provide chances for people to discuss their concerns,” said Crabtree. “Sometimes people need a chance to vent their feelings.”
Getting high-quality people is important. Crabtree said she recruits at job fairs and even places banners on buses. She encourages retired people to consider driving the school buses.
“We have people who really love kids,” she said.
Though, she said sometimes people choose to pursue other career opportunities. “Driving a school bus is not for everyone,” said Crabtree. “When someone leaves, we try to do an exit interview. We want people to feel good about their experience with this district.”
Setting an Example
Alfred Karam is the director of transportation for Shenendehowa Central Schools in Clifton Park, New York. Karam also agreed that servant leadership is particularly important. He is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring as a master gunnery sergeant after 25 years of military service. He has spent the last 20 years in school bus transportation.
“There is a lot of fear because of the COVID-19 pandemic. My military experience has taught me to allay that fear. I don’t push things down. Employees want to know what is happening. My job is to lessen the fear and from my military background I know how to provide proper leadership in this situation,” he shared. “For me, it comes down to having open communication with the employees. The more information they get, the less the fear controls them. You want to provide steady leadership. As the leader of the department, I have to set a good example. I can’t go and hide.”
Karam stressed the importance of proper and thorough communication to everyone in the organization. “I did a lot of Google meets and shared with everyone what we were doing,” he said. “The drivers knew what we were doing to maintain a healthy environment on the buses. We showed them what we were doing to sanitize the buses. We had positive emails and people knew the environment was safe.”
He said he believes it is important to lead by example. “I am here every day and I have been here every day since the shutdown,” he added. “The personnel appreciate openness and honesty. I like to be proactive and not reactive.”
Karam also said that he does not just push things down on junior employees.
“I lay out a problem and I give people the freedom to use their critical thinking skills to solve it. I am solution-oriented. I encourage people to be part of the process and ask whatever questions they have. I want them to have a say so and a voice. I want a collective mission for success,” he said. “We have consistent leadership, and we support people. We don’t tolerate racism or harassment. We make it clear that this about the children, not the adults.”
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Karam leads by defining and maintaining high expectations and he said he doesn’t accept hearing from his staff that a problem can’t be solved. “We were gearing to open schools and staff was saying we can’t do it. ‘I said I don’t want to hear the word can’t.’ The school leadership was saying we need to reimagine opening the schools. ‘I said don’t worry about bell times.’ They came up with 20 different scenarios for getting the schools back open. And the district picked one that is what we went with,” he recalled.
During the application process, prospective drivers go through a two-part assessment. The district sets high standards for the people it hires, and drivers receive extensive training. “We get a report on where a person is weak. This helps us determine how to train or work with this individual,” said Karam.
Karam said that most drivers are able to work six hours a day. Many of the drivers have retired from other occupations. One attractive offering of Shenendehowa Central Schools is the health benefits that are considered to be worth their weight in gold. They are better than what many other employers offer their personnel.