ROCKFORD, Ill. — During her career of nearly 40 years in pupil transportation, Jill Winger has held many titles.
She began as a school bus driver and has held dispatcher and driver training positions, but she highlights her role as a mentor — for drivers as well as for the children she’s driven over the years — as her best memory.
On Friday, Winger will retire from Rockford School District 205, where she has worked in the transportation department for 35 years.
When Winger started driving a school bus for a contractor in 1978, she took the job so she would have the same work schedule as her children’s school schedule.
“I was off in the summertime when they were young,” she said. “Then it progressed to building myself up further and further into the transportation department, and I became the driver trainer, and the dispatcher, and a mentor.”
A lifelong resident of Rockford, Winger grew up riding the school bus routes she would later end up driving.
“The best thing that I enjoyed was to actually turn a person into a professional bus driver,” Winger said. “They're safe. They're loving. They're caring, and they succeed.” Rockford School District 205 sits northwest of Chicago, close to the Wisconsin border, and serves between 22,000 and 23,000 children, according to transportation department estimates.
Winger said a unique aspect of her district is that there is a large number of children who are in the foster care system.
“The hardest thing for me to train is the discipline, because some children are very, very difficult,” she said. “A lot of them are within the system now, and they don't have parents that guide them, and they're with foster parents, and some of them are just very mad children.”
As a driver trainer, Winger said she always tried to stress the importance of treating all children lovingly and equally, so that no child would feel left out or disregarded.
During her time as a school bus driver, Winger said she would take the most difficult or problematic child on the bus and make them her best friend.
“Whatever it took, I made them my best friend, and they helped control my bus,” Winger recalled. “I made them feel important. I made them feel needed and useful.”
Winger remembered children sometimes asking if they could go home with her, a conversation that often went like this:
Student: "Can I go home with you, please, please, please?"
Winger: "Well, your mommy will miss you. You can't go home with me. Your mom would be sad."
Student: "Oh, I won't see my mom. She never comes home."
Winger: "Well, who's there with you?"
Student: "Well, sometimes my uncle's asleep on the couch, and I'm hungry."
Winger said she would often pack lunch for such children and sneak it to them as they got off the bus. It was important to her to always make each child feel important, useful, and loved, as many of them didn’t get that at home.
Winger also trained school bus drivers to treat the students as if they were their own grandchild, daughter, son, niece, or nephew.
“If they’re naughty, treat them with discipline, like they’re your own children, and talk to them like they’re your own,” Winger advised new and current drivers. “Don’t talk to them badly or ridicule or put them down.”
She also stressed the importance of always keeping an open mind, and constantly staying alert while driving.
Although Winger started driving a school bus to have the same schedule as her children, she didn’t drive her own children or grandchildren unless their regular driver was sick.
She said one of her grandsons would always report back to her on how a new driver was doing.
“My grandson knew that I was the driver trainer, so when he got a new bus driver, he would always give me a heads-up: ‘Grandma, you did a really good job training that driver. He was perfect.’”
An outdoor enthusiast and avid NASCAR fan, Winger plans on spending her summer at her family’s cabin on Lake Tomahawk in northern Wisconsin.
“I might come back as a substitute bus driver,” she added. “It’s in my blood.”