Leading a school transportation department requires a combination of many factors. When it comes to retaining school bus drivers and other staff, one of the key pieces is fostering a cohesive work environment.

Becky Reier leads a staff of 30 personnel who help transport the 5,500 students of Kearney (Neb.) Public Schools. Her duties include the usual scheduling needs, mechanical issues, safety requirements, and budget demands.

She balances one aspect of her professional duties — team building — as just another piece of the puzzle.

“Sometimes our staff has a difficult time relating,” says Reier, the district’s transportation director. “Spending $2.99 for a jigsaw puzzle is a cheap investment that brings people together. Even watching television can emphasize our differences.”

Reier brought in several jigsaw puzzles and left them on the tables in the transportation staff lounge. Without any direction, the staff cracked open the boxes and began working on a common project: putting together a 500-piece puzzle of a beach scene complete with sailboats and palm trees — a far cry from the typical Nebraska landscape.

For Kearney Public Schools, the unassuming activity of assembling a puzzle has helped bring together drivers and other employees in the transportation department.

Fitting Together

Reier’s staff gathers before the start of routes to check on schedules, swap stories about student conduct, and see if they can find a few pieces that connect the border of the puzzle.

“In these acrimonious times, a simple discussion about politics can lead to tears,” Reier says. “We have a wide spectrum of employees, from people with little formal education to folks with doctorates. Joining others at a table with a common goal of putting together a jigsaw puzzle helps the staff relate to each other in a supportive, noncompetitive way.”

Strife, emotional outbursts, resentment — these issues can detract from the attention that drivers must apply to their duties. Something as simple as a jigsaw puzzle can replace emotions with a common goal.

“The puzzle can help people focus,” Reier notes. “If they’re not social people, they can sit and find a few pieces of the puzzle without a lot of conversation. They don’t need to provide an in-depth analysis of our foreign policy or the morality of our gun laws to help with a jigsaw puzzle.”

“Joining others at a table with a common goal of putting together a jigsaw puzzle helps the staff relate to each other in a supportive, noncompetitive way.”
— Becky Reier, transportation director
Kearney (Neb.) Public Schools

Finding Connections

Last year, Reier recognized the need for a unifying activity for her staff in the driver lounge. At the beginning of the school year, she brainstormed a list of terms with her staff in hopes of creating a poster to affirm the group’s core values. That project failed to take hold.

Reier also tried board games, to no avail. The competitive nature of the games created more tension than just watching political discussions on television.

“We always have a beginning-of-the-year potluck, but not everyone feels comfortable attending those types of events … [and] that’s not a continuous activity,” Reier says. “Having a puzzle spread out on a table in the break room is something everybody can focus on a little each day.”

Staff members sometimes stick around after their shifts to find a few pieces to fit into the puzzle. “That cracks me up,” Reier says.

Boosting Retention

Some administrators might see the puzzle efforts as a lack of productivity, but as a department head, Reier considers the investment of a jigsaw puzzle — along with the time the staff spends on a cooperative project — as money well spent. Ultimately, the administrators want students transported in a safe, cost-effective manner. Retaining staff ranks as one of the most important ways to achieve both objectives.

“One administrator told me how fortunate I am that I have such low turnover,” Reier says. “We work at making this department one where our staff wants to stay. I realize that they have responsibilities outside of work.”

The transportation director noted that most of her team members consider school bus driving a way to give back to the community.

“Drivers don’t come here to make a fortune,” Reier says. “They come here to make a difference. They want to serve their community, and they have a heart for children. That’s why people drive. They don’t drive because they like a big, shiny yellow bus.”

Kearney Public Schools mechanic John Baughman (left) and driver Rick Brown work on a jigsaw puzzle in the transportation staff lounge.

Kearney Public Schools mechanic John Baughman (left) and driver Rick Brown work on a jigsaw puzzle in the transportation staff lounge.

Stress Relief

With more than 30 years of experience in school transportation, Reier can anticipate stress due to the rhythm of the year.

“In this department, we normally have a huge employee blowup right before Christmas break and towards the end of the school year,” she says. “People get on each other’s nerves. What we need is cooperation in getting the job done, especially during times of stress.”

For the transportation department at Kearney Public Schools, building strong relationships — through time spent on something as simple as putting together a jigsaw puzzle — has helped create a foundation that benefits all employees in stressful times.

“During those demanding periods, we fall back on what we know and what we believe — we fall back to our core values,” Reier says. “The values found in a cooperative task like completing a jigsaw puzzle are the kinds of values that help build relationships of strength in our department.”

Those strong relationships have translated into school bus drivers and staff who feel valued and look forward to the next day, week, or year of safely transporting students as an important piece of the puzzle in education.

One last piece of advice: “Don’t buy a 1,000-piece puzzle,” Reier recommends. “Those are too hard to put together.”

Rick Brown is a school bus driver for Kearney Public Schools and a freelance writer.