Imagine this: You call the local school transportation provider to inquire into becoming a bus driver. "Have you ever driven a truck?" asks the director. "No, I drive a Volkswagen bug," you reply. "No problem," he says. "It shifts the same — it just takes the corners wider." Two hours later you have passed the test and are certified to drive a school bus. Betty Norris, vice president of driver development and safety for Laidlaw Education Services, says this is how she began her career in pupil transportation almost 30 years ago. With no classroom instruction, she found herself behind the wheel of a bus she’d spent an hour and a half learning to drive. "It was right then that I decided, if I had anything to do with it, we needed to upgrade the quality of driver training," Norris says. Driver training programs have indeed come a long way in the past three decades. Each state has adopted minimum standards for training of school bus drivers. This usually includes pre-hire training, both in class and behind the wheel, as well as mandatory in-service meetings and regular recertification courses. But as we improve the content of our driver training courses, we mustn’t lose sight of an equally important factor — presentation. How can we communicate that important information in such a way that drivers will understand, retain and value it? It takes more than an available classroom and a VCR. According to industry experts, it takes organization, creativity, a willingness to listen and a sense of humor. The following are tips and tricks gathered from driver trainers across the country.
Be organized and original
The first step toward grabbing the attention of your drivers is to spend ample time planning your lesson. Know what information you will cover, how you will present it and how much time it will take. Limit a standard in-service session to one hour or less and don’t run over. Minimize distractions by distributing handouts at the end of the session, rather than at the beginning. Whenever possible, use visual aids, such as charts, pictures and props, or guest speakers. "The instructor is her own best visual aid," says Lauren Russell, northeastern regional safety manager for Laidlaw in Marlboro, Mass. "If the instructor is distracting by jingling change in her pocket, dangling haphazardly on a chair, dressing slovenly, ‘faking it’ or ‘winging it,’ it really ruins the meeting," she says. Russell stresses the importance of being organized and professional — from the use of advanced software programs like Microsoft’s PowerPoint right down to the proper adjustment of room temperature. Part of being professional, says Cheryll Stephens, assistant director of transportation at Bastrop (Texas) Independent School District, is using appropriate, educated terminology in training sessions. "During training, we talk about the apex of turns, ground references and alignment," she says. Not only does this help improve the drivers’ vocabulary, but it builds their self-esteem, says Stephens. "It gives them more confidence and enhances their skills." Being organized and professional, however, does not mean being predictable. Russell says that it’s important to keep things new and interesting. Even the smallest changes in the classroom setup can get the drivers more involved in the lesson. "If they come in and find the chairs arranged a certain way, they wonder what they are going to be doing. It gets them involved in that particular topic," she says. To practice emergency evacuations, for example, she arranges the classroom chairs into the shape of a school bus. Each driver takes turns evacuating his fellow drivers from the mock bus while racing the stopwatch. "They never know what I am going to do," she says. "It makes their brains wake up."
Revive your topics
Though certain topics are standard and necessary (railroad crossings, mirror usage, defensive driving, student management, etc.), don’t overlook other topics that may be less obvious. "You have to listen to the drivers when they come into the supervisor’s office or the lounge with issues. Turn it back around and bring it back as a safety meeting," recommends Russell. This can help you come up with topical information that is relevant to the drivers. Trainers at Durham Transportation in Austin, Texas, for instance, did a whole session on laser pointers because drivers complained that students were creating distractions by playing with them on the bus. "We look at what’s timely and listen to the people on-site when planning curriculum," explains Michelle Wallace, director of public relations. Listening to your drivers can even help you put the life back in the most standard of safety topics. "There are only so many ways you can teach winter driving and what to do in the snow," says Russell, who eventually decided to try something new. After hearing one of her drivers discuss a frightening winter driving experience in the drivers’ lounge, Russell got the idea to videotape the driver telling his story and share it with other drivers in training. In what was later dubbed the "mirror sweep" video, the driver told of almost leaving a child behind at a stop in the snow. He had loaded all of the other children on the bus and was about to pull away when a final sweep of his mirrors revealed a child covered in snow running toward the bus. The other children had playfully buried the boy in the snow, where he disappeared into his surroundings. Russell says this video had a lasting impact on her drivers, reminding them to always scan their mirrors one last time and to pay special attention in winter weather.
There’s no way to spice up a training session like playing games. "In playing games, you are actually testing their knowledge, making them participate — in a fun way — and promoting a team feeling," explains Russell. You can use ideas from TV game shows or board games to create fun training activities. The following are examples of training games used by Russell and colleague Linda Mendes, driver development and safety manager at Laidlaw in Boston. $1.98 Pyramid — based on the $10,000 Pyramid game show. This can be played in teams or by individuals. One driver keeps time and another keeps score. The instructor reads a series of words pertaining to a specific item/topic in school transportation, and the contestant identifies the item/topic using as few clues as possible. Example: Clue — "pin...red...foam...bracket...." Answer — "What are the parts of a fire extinguisher?" Rotate players to keep everyone involved. Dueling Drivers — based on the Family Feud game show. Drivers separate into two teams and come up to the front of the room. The instructor reads a question relating to driving a bus and the team that knows the answer first rings a bell. Drivers can talk with teammates to come up with the answer, but they get only one response for the entire team. If they miss the answer, the question goes to the other team. This can be geared toward any topic being covered at a meeting (loading and unloading, railroad crossing, pre-trip inspections, etc.). Sample questions: "Name eight lights that are on your school bus," "What is the correct procedure for railroad crossings?" Added touches: Make a large poster to use as a backdrop for the game show. Give a prize to the winning team. Jeopardy! — based on the game show with the same name. Instructor makes a set of cards, folded in half, with questions on the inside and answers on the outside. The drivers divide into two teams, each with a set of cards, and move to opposite sides of the room. A contestant from one team reads the answer from his card to the other team and they have to come up with the correct question for that answer. Alternate between teams and keep score. Russell points out that prizes for the drivers, though highly rewarding, don’t need to be expensive. Sometimes she will save the money the budget allows for donuts and coffee and spend it on key chains, lottery tickets or trinkets for their buses. One time she gave out certificates that she colored herself, drawing funny cartoons on them and tying each with a ribbon. "They loved them," she said. "You would have thought I had given them gold."
Have a sense of humor
For those drivers who have been around for a while, the goal is not as much to teach them something new as it is to remind them of the things they already know — in a way that will grab their attention. The key to this seems to be innovation, combined with a sense of humor. Mendes, for example, put a new spin on the safety video by creating a video of her own, "A day in the life of a bus driver." It’s a funny video set to comical music, showing a very bad day for one unfortunate bus driver. He is late to work. There is snow on the ground, and he slips and slides his way to his bus. He slips getting on. He slips getting off. He falls into just about every trap that a bus driver could. "It’s a ‘what not to do’ thing," says Mendes. The second half of the video depicts the same driver on a good day, doing everything right. "Part of being an instructor is having a sense of humor," explains Mendes, who says the drivers liked the video so much that they made her play it three times. "It’s very gratifying to hear the drivers say to you with anticipation, ‘What are you going to do next month?’"