School bus driver shortage has been a constant challenge for the industry. As a result, transportation departments are often asking drivers to take on more shifts and recruiting other staff members to complete routes.
While some departments may be able to do more with less and still maintain a commitment to safety, it’s important for drivers not to get lost in the shuffle.
As Shawn Smith puts it, drivers are the “core” of pupil transportation.
“Without [drivers], school districts — particularly transportation departments — are going to fail,” says Smith, the director of Aurora (Colo.) Public Schools. “But, if we ensure that everyone understands that the department is here to support the success of drivers … then we can elevate together as a team.”
Enhancing driver satisfaction is key to developing a more cohesive and supportive workplace. Here, we share 10 tips for promoting positive driver engagement, from team-building activities to training resources that can help drivers do their job more effectively.
1. Establish an Open-Door Policy
Visible leadership efforts help improve the trust and respect drivers have not only for transportation directors, but also for the entire organization.
At Aurora Public Schools, Smith says he makes himself available for drivers from the time they’re out on the bus yard conducting morning pre-trips to when they depart for their afternoon routes.
“They need people to listen to them,” he explains. “Even when they’re in the break room, I’m talking to drivers, finding out how they’re doing, and seeing if I can help them in any way.”
2. Conduct Engagement Surveys
Checking in with drivers may not always mean having a face-to-face conversation. Sometimes drivers may prefer to reflect on their experiences with a department through a written survey or evaluation.
For the past three years, Atlanta (Ga.) Public Schools has conducted an annual culture and engagement survey in partnership with Gallup. The survey focuses on employee engagement for each department, capturing employee progress, and the available resources for employees.
John Franklin, the district’s director of transportation, says since implementing the surveys, the district has seen substantial improvements in attendance, completion of annual physicals, and two-way radio communication.
3. Perform Driver Evaluations
While receiving feedback from drivers may be helpful in understanding what the department can improve on, giving drivers that same feedback through evaluations can also help facilitate effective driver-staff communication.
Every quarter, a team of coordinators at Aurora Public Schools conducts driver evaluations based on a series of weighted scores in areas of performance, including attendance, pre- and post- trip inspections, and preventable accidents. Smith says the performance list is then published for the entire transportation department so they can check their standing.
“[The list] makes drivers want to strive to be better,” he explains. “It becomes more of a friendly competition.”
After each quarterly evaluation, Smith says he thanks the top five drivers for their efforts and sends an email to the department, spotlighting the number-one driver of the quarter.
4. Choose a Theme
Florence Unified School District (USD) #1 in San Tan Valley, Arizona, selects a theme each July for the department to focus on for the school year. Picking a theme helps motivate drivers to build better relationships with their students and their colleagues, says Shannon Weber, the district’s director of transportation.
This year’s theme, “Making the Shift,” is specific to the district’s new school bus management program, called the Positive Bus Safety System, Weber adds.
“We measure student management [success] for drivers based on reduced student behavior referrals and the progress of improved student behavior,” she notes. “[Drivers] really like to see the results of their efforts.”
5. Create a Rewards Program
For larger transportation departments, Franklin recommends starting a rewards program to honor high-performing drivers.
“The rewards system is a way to make them feel happy and proud, while also reflecting good behavior,” he notes.
Atlanta Public Schools roots their rewards system in three key performance areas (similar to those listed in Tip 3), Franklin explains. At the end of the school year, the drivers who perform well in all three areas are invited to a recognition ceremony with the department’s leadership staff, school board members, and superintendents. The drivers also receive a jacket with their name embroidered on it.
Smith says Aurora Public Schools also has a rewards system in which they ask local vendors and food shops to donate gift cards and other perks to drivers who have perfect attendance.
6. Offer Professional Development Training
It’s not always about giving rewards; sometimes boosting morale is about offering more opportunities for drivers to enhance their professional skills.
Weber, who is fairly new to Florence USD #1, says the district’s transportation department organizes quarterly professional development training for drivers based on current industry trends and the types of new training programs that are being offered. Role-playing for student behavior management, she notes, is a training program that the department often partakes in.
In Georgia, Franklin says Atlanta Public Schools provides drivers with social and emotional learning, mental health first-aid, and leadership training.
7. Host Team-Building Activities
Not every transportation department may have the budget to present drivers with monetary incentives or conduct frequent training sessions, but departments can be resourceful in finding other low-cost activities to keep driver morale high.
In Nebraska, Kearney Public Schools’ transportation department uses something as simple as jigsaw puzzles to foster a sense of community among its staff members.
“[The puzzles] are really a way to bring everyone together,” says Becky Reier, the director of transportation for the district. “I spend about three or four dollars getting a new puzzle, depending on when [the staff] finishes them, and we all look forward to seeing what the picture is.”
At Florence USD #1, Weber says her department plans a scavenger hunt each year to incorporate a social component to the state’s Department of Public Safety training requirements.
8. Develop Specialized Committees
Having a group of staff members dedicated to promoting positivity can often make it easier for the department to increase driver engagement.
Franklin recommends districts start a “sunshine committee,” consisting of drivers, bus monitors, and other staff members to do special deeds for drivers who may be down on their luck.
“This past year, [Atlanta Public Schools’] sunshine committee led a whole month of activities for breast cancer awareness, which culminated in a team walk for awareness at the city’s historic Sun Trust stadium,” Franklin says.
At Kearney Public Schools, Reier says she’s instituted “Yummy Wednesdays,” in which designated staff members bring in treats for the department on days their county experiences harsh winter weather.
9. Participate in Community-Wide Events
Nationwide, school districts and transportation departments participate in annual events like Love the Bus month in February, and National School Bus Safety Week in October to build connections with those in their communities and those across the industry.
Last year, Weber says her department held an “If you see something, say something” week as part of their national safety week activities. Drivers were asked to report any safety violations they spotted while out on their routes and were rewarded with prizes that were placed where violations were found.
Other community events may include annual conferences and trade shows.
This year, Reier says Kearney Public Schools provided funding for one of their special-needs drivers to attend the Transporting Students with Disabilities Conference held in Frisco, Texas, in March.
Holding celebrations for drivers, no matter how big or how small, can go a long way in advancing morale. Whether it’s celebrating a birthday or hosting a staff breakfast or luncheon, drivers want to feel like they are appreciated.
“We have three breakfasts every year,” Franklin says, “and they’re all dedicated to driving engagement, participation, and fostering good will.”
Smith adds that his district will do little things every quarter, such as having a breakfast burrito bar or offering popcorn in the break room.
Sometimes if a driver does exceptionally well on a route, Weber says she’ll even sweep their bus.
“It may sound a little silly, but I think it’s important that they know that their leader is willing to walk in their shoes — that helps a lot with their willingness to work hard.”