In 2003, Joshua Hinerman got his start as a school bus driver in Tennessee.
“It was a great day when that (commercial driver license) examiner in Columbia said to me, ‘Your dream of driving a school bus is now a reality,’” recalls the current Robertson County Schools transportation director. “I think everyone at the DMV heard my shout of joy and they certainly could look at my smile to know I was happy.”
In the years since that day, Hinerman has risen through ranks in positions of leadership, but has tried to remain grounded and humble, approaching his work as more of a servant than a supervisor. Besides managing 100 buses and the people who drive and maintain them, Hinerman drives a bus for a Robertson County soccer team, helps families in need, and occasionally takes up the mop as a backup school custodian.
“No one is more passionate about the yellow school bus than Joshua,” says Chris Causey, director of Robertson County Schools. “Over 7,000 students are transported daily, and each of those students is a priority.”
Causey notes that many students must be transported to schools outside their zone. Hinerman makes it happen. Families sometimes need rides to medical appointments in Nashville when they have no other way to get there. He makes it happen.
“In a world where many people tell why things can’t happen, Joshua always says, ‘If a student needs it, we’ll make it happen,’” Causey says.
For these reasons, Hinerman’s nomination stood out and earned selection as School Bus Fleet’s Administrator of the Year for 2022.
Hinerman was born in Medina, Ohio, but moved south to Tennessee with his mother and grandparents after his grandfather retired from General Motors. He has a younger brother.
He remembers his first days on a school bus, with the driver, Mr. Welch, letting him sit up front and open the door of the old standard-shift vehicle. His own great-grandmother and great-grandfather drove school buses in Ohio, back in the day.
“I have had a love for the yellow school bus since I was a small child,” Hinerman says. “There is something majestic about the school bus that has captivated my attention all these many years. I often think of how the school bus represents to me a safe harbor for our students, as does the requirement to wear the full armor of God to ensure our spiritual safety in our spiritual journey back home. Both provide the greatest protection to those who make use of them.”
Hinerman doesn’t have children, but “I have dedicated my life to the service of others’ children,” he says.
His involvement in the Mennonite community came about, he remembers, after he and his brother found a deer tangled in a fence while exploring their Tennessee farm: “My attendance at Ostella Church of Christ set in motion much of who I am today, coupled with the inspiration I received from my teacher, Ms. Blackwell, in school and my neighbor, Mr. Fletcher, who served as a father figure to me growing up.”
He is deeply committed to the belief that he was called to serve.
“As we serve others, we serve the Lord,” he says. “We cannot serve others and worry about us. We must forget ourselves in this journey through life. This does not mean we don’t take proper care of our personal needs and for our families; however, when we have our needs met and have extra, we must do our part to help those who are less fortunate than we are in life.”
That means going beyond just hauling students from door to door and providing resources to ensure student success. At times, he has traveled with the district’s homeless liaison and foster care representative to help students who need dental or medical attention because “it is the right thing to do."
In the community of Springfield, about one-third of the students are Hispanic, Hinerman says. He volunteers to teach English and train immigrants to prepare for citizenship tests. He wants to hire people that reflect his community, share its values, and speak its languages.
Some students are from families that aren’t in the United States legally, and they need help navigating the complicated immigration process. “I am not an expert for sure,” he says, “but I can get them in touch with the right folks and help by providing review of documents and provide rides when needed to meetings.”
‘Where We Go One, We Go All’
Ask anyone who works with Hinerman, they’ll recite his motto:
“Where we go one, we go all.”
It comes from an inspirational phrase engraved on a bell in the Jeff Bridges movie White Squall (1996), in which Bridges plays the captain of a yacht leading a group of young men on an educational cruise around the Caribbean and finds himself and the inexperienced crew tested by a freak storm.
“It inspired me and reminded me of the importance of having a passion in life and then going after that passion with all our being and inspire as many others along the way to join in on this passion,” Hinerman says. “My passion is the yellow school bus and I believe that we should all encourage others to be yellow school bus champions.”
He serves on a writing committee for the National Congress for School Transportation. He speaks at conferences to promote the school bus industry, including a session on defensive driving techniques for the Tennessee Association for Pupil Transportation.
He involves himself in local and state school meetings and often finds himself pitching the value of the school bus. By devoting his own time and energy, he says, people may be more inclined to help, especially when sharing the good, the bad, the strengths, the weaknesses of a given program.
“I see so many supervisors get frustrated about how local decisionmakers overlook them during budget time and I find that most are only coming to work and not willing to do any extra to help change the narrative,” Hinerman says. The motto, he says, “reminds me that we are all in this together, and transportation teams lean heavily on each other to accomplish the daily task of providing safe and efficient transportation services to our students.”
Departments like his in Robertson County provides a gateway for students and, if struggling, it can directly affect student achievement. To his mind, student transportation services are much more complex than just shuttling children to and from school.
Said Teresa Leavitt, supervisor of student services for Robertson County Schools: “As a servant leader, Mr. Hinerman strives to develop trusting relationships with his staff by ‘walking the talk’ and modeling appropriate responses during interactions with co-workers, students, and parents. Expectations are clearly articulated to staff, and he leads by example. Mr. Hinerman does not ask anything of his staff that he does not do himself, and he strives to assist others through his role.”
Shortages Amid Difficult Times
Like many school districts across the United States, Robertson County copes with a shortage of school bus drivers for the required routes traveled by the district’s 7,000 students.
“We have had to lean on each other more than ever to ensure we are providing transportation services to our students,” Hinerman says. “I am thankful that we are a large family in transportation. We have all gone above and beyond during these difficult times. I admit that many are growing tired. I remind the team often that we must not become weary in well doing. We do this work for the sake of our children.”
The district has given bonuses to recognize those efforts, to make sure that employees know the work hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Hinerman seeks the best professionals for his team, embraces diversity of thought, and puts value on voice and expression of thought so the team – and the industry at large – might evolve and succeed.