In many school districts, the face that parents and guardians see most frequently doesn’t belong to the principal, the teacher, or even other students—it’s the school bus driver, the man or woman charged with the awesome responsibility of getting dozens of children from their homes to their classroom in a safe and efficient manner.
It’s a serious and often thankless job. Districts fear there may even be a shortage of drivers for the 2017-18 school year, thanks to an improving economy and more career options. To better understand their duties, Mental Floss asked several school bus drivers about their experiences on and off the road. Here’s a glimpse of what goes on before, during, and after your kid hops on board.
1. THEY ASSIGN SEATS TO AVOID TROUBLE.
As kids get older, their on-bus behavior can start to become a distraction. To help curb tiny trouble, drivers can plan seat assignments that offer a better chance of cooperation. “Seating arrangement is really left up to the driver,” says Cindy, a former driver in Tennessee. “You find [most] children work best with having assigned seats. Middle and high school kids work best by separating the sexes—boys on one side, girls on the other. Front seats are best left open so students causing issues or with behavior problems can be assigned to sit on the driver’s right to be better monitored.”
2. THEY MIGHT TAKE IN A MOVIE DURING THE DAY.
School bus drivers usually have a staggered schedule, driving kids in different grades throughout the morning and then doing it in reverse later in the day. While that eats up more time than one might think, drivers who live close to the bus garage can drop off their wheels and do whatever they like for a good portion of the day. “I got done around 9 a.m. and didn’t have to be back to work until 1:30,” says Mike, a retired driver in Central New York. “Sometimes drivers will do a field trip or something, but I had a chunk of time to myself.”
Sounds breezy, but Mike and most other drivers are paid by the number of hours worked. “During the summer,” Mike says, “you don’t get paid.”
3. PARENTS CAN BE A BIGGER PROBLEM THAN THE KIDS.
It’s not always the kids that misbehave. “I think it would surprise people how often parents tell their children they don't have to obey a driver,” Cindy says. “And because of that, very simple safety rule enforcement is a battle. It was more important for little Sally to have the right side and lean on her window than for her to be seated safely and facing forward.”
4. THERE’S A BENEFIT TO DRIVER SENIORITY.
Drivers who have been in the hot seat long enough to earn seniority can earn more money, but there are other perks. “In my district, drivers with the highest seniority got to drive the smaller, van-type buses,” Mike says. In addition to having fewer students on board, those drivers usually benefit from having a bus monitor riding along to ensure cooperation without having to take their eyes off the road.
5. KIDS (AND PARENTS) CAN GIVE THEM BRIBES.
Not all of the little hellraisers are out for blood. Some actually come on board bearing gifts or treats for drivers, especially around the holidays. “Some children will bring you things of their own volition such as a flower or candy bar,” Cindy says. And parents can sometimes let a little money change hands in exchange for a few perks. “Honking the horn for students, allowing things brought on the bus that aren't allowed [are examples],” she says. Such contraband might include chewing gum and open drinks. “Most drivers that received gifts from parents are the drivers that broke the rules for those parents. I've seen actual cash change hands.”
6. THEY PERFORM A LITTLE RITUAL AFTER EVERY ROUTE.
Once every kid has de-boarded, drivers usually have to walk the length of the bus to make sure there are no stragglers. “There’s a magnetic sign at the front of the bus, and at the end of the route you have to walk down the aisle and stick it up so it shows out of the back window,” Mike says. “More than once, I’ve found a kid sleeping or engrossed on their phone.”
7. THE EMERGENCY EXITS MAKE FOR A GOOD PRANK.
Ever wonder how a bus driver closes the pneumatic door if he or she is the last one to leave? They actually can’t—not all the way, anyway. Depending on the make and model of bus, drivers might have to settle for closing it most of the way, but if it’s shut completely, the driver will have to enter via one of the emergency exits. “We used that as a prank every once in a while,” Mike says. “We’d get in the bus and shut the door tight, then leave via the emergency exit so the [next] driver would have to get in the same way.”
8. THEY CAN GET FREE FIELD TRIP ADMISSION.
Unlike limo drivers, bus drivers aren’t expected to hang out in the background while their tiny wards are off having fun at a destination. “During field trips, we are supposed to have free admission to wherever the students are visiting,” Cindy says. “If it was a trip over lunch, it's common for all drivers to take one bus to a restaurant together.”
9. REGULAR DRIVERS ARE THE WORST.
School buses aren’t made to stop quickly, which makes bad drivers the single biggest bane of a bus driver's existence. “The most stressful [thing] was other drivers being reckless while students are loading or unloading,” Cindy says. “Like running my stop sign, which resulted in at least one close call.”
10. THEY CAN FIND OUT WHO MADE A MESS.
Drivers are usually tasked with clean-up duty at the end of the day, finding everything from food to textbooks to things that are best left unmentioned. But Mike says they can often pinpoint the culprit. “Since we assigned seats, I know which kid was sitting where and who made what mess.”
11. THERE’S A REASON THEY KEEP KIDS SO SAFE.
Careful and skilled driving remains the best preventative measure for keeping school kids safe during their commute, but the overall layout of the bus matters too. The American School Bus Council (ASBC) calls it “compartmentalization,” the term for the kind of high-backed and padded seating arrangement that can distribute energy in the event of a crash. That, coupled with extensive driver instruction, makes it the safest ride around. “I think people would be surprised how much continuous education there is,” Mike says. He trained for 40 hours before making his first official departure. “It’s not just some old guy driving a truck.”