School districts from coast to coast are experiencing a shortage of staff in most departments, and that is especially true with bus drivers. Students and their families depend on school transportation. Shortages from a lack of drivers or chronic absenteeism with overworked, stressed drivers results in students missing out on critical instructional time. School bus drivers have traditionally been harder to staff. But no matter the reasons for shortages, one of the most effective ways to maintain a team is to retain the team.
Staff Shortages and the Impact on Students
Children whose families rely on the school bus are being picked up on a combined route or even a second route. When children arrive late, they miss out on precious education time at the day's start, which may be embarrassing or anxiety-inducing for students. This is problematic in that chronic tardiness and absenteeism are linked to lower academic performance. Other times, buses need to be canceled for school events or sporting competitions, or parents need to drive students instead, creating a hardship that can impact their jobs and employment.
Sharing the Mt. Diablo Model
In California's Mt. Diablo Unified School District, 71 routes and 76 drivers transport many of the district’s 29,000 students. The district’s business services department leaders have been emphasizing employee retention and voice as part of its Equity Initiative, and a focus recently shifted to a modified ‘exit interview.’ Rather than wait for staff to leave and find out why, conducting ‘stay interviews’ can glean insights into what employees like about their jobs, working in the District, and what suggestions they have for improvement.
The Process of Stay Interviews
Two dozen bus drivers were invited to a meeting after morning bus runs, greeted by district leaders, large chart paper on walls around the room, and Post-Its on tables to anonymize and randomize their feedback.
Using anonymous sharing through Post-Its around the room, bus drivers weighed in on a number of questions in the hour-long session, including:
- What do you love about your job?
- When you think back to your “onboarding,” is there anything that could have been different to improve the transition onto our business services team?
- What is one thing your leaders are doing really well to make you feel welcomed, appreciated and valued?
- If there was something you could change about your job, what would it be?
- Why do you stay in this position/district?
- If you identify as part of an "minority" (person of color, LGBTQ+, etc), do you feel welcome in MDUSD?
- Follow up: What could MDUSD do to better recruit people from under-represented groups and/or make them feel more welcome?
What We Learned and Our Next Steps
It’s the simple things in life that make us all happy. As in any relationship, great communication is key. That is exactly what the drivers asked for: Keep us informed of what is happening in our department and bigger district news. In our leadership debrief, we decided to expand our “Tip of the Moment” publication to a bimonthly communication to our drivers. Keeping the open communication constant will also keep our employees engaged.
Drivers reported that they stay with our district for various reasons, such as proximity to home, benefits, flexible hours, work life balance, and their overall joy and satisfaction of helping our students and family. And remember that simple thing? The drivers said they would really like an ice machine…it’s that simple. We have asked our neighbors that we share the building with to help with this. We gathered information that will also help us with recruiting drivers and what our demographic should be. We run advertisements on Indeed but Parentsquare or Facebook would reach a larger audience to those who would be more receptive to the recruitment.
We also learned that our department is very culturally diverse, and were validated that our leaders are living up to our department's mission statement: Practicing inclusion and being our authentic selves.
How to Run a Stay Interview
Start with selective recruitment with staff members who have been in the district for three to eight years, as this target group are somewhat new and have the ability to leave because they may not be vested far enough into a public retirement plan. These are usually the employees who would be more apt to leave.
Encouraged attendees to speak their truths and be their authentic selves. Once norms are established and explained, allow attendees to ask questions before the brainstorming begins. A 15-minute brainstorming on Post-Its, with each idea having its own note, should be enough to get a lot of great ideas. Once the Post-Its are added to their corresponding poster page, have a facilitator group ideas and share them out loud. This validates every contribution and provides a chance to ask for clarification in case any notes are unclear. This process opens up a line of communication that has never been tapped into, so keep an open mind as you go through it.
And bring in snacks, lunch, or something that says “we care about you and you deserve a treat.” Consider both food and an extra hour of pay that will show you value the staff whose voices you want to hear.
Reflections on the Process
Bus drivers were overwhelmingly complimentary of the stay interviews.
Scott Duncan noted: "It was a really positive outcome...and we should have them more often."
Marquita Wesley said: "I feel the meeting was very effective in a positive way with positive vibes and the questions asked why we love our jobs. I personally love that higher management came down to talk to us and get our opinions."
Cindy Gilmore looks forward to the next steps that are already in the planning phase: "Let's actually discuss issues that we want resolved," she said. "Some won't happen overnight. I think we genuinely want to work and help our students and their families."
Leaders couldn't have been more pleased with the outcome. One shared: "It was great to connect with our drivers and get positive feedback on their experiences with our District, as well as where we can find additional opportunities to go from good to great!"
Cristian Lepe is the Transportation Director and CASBO’s 2022 Magnificent Seven Award awardee. Dr. Lisa Gonzales is Chief Business Officer and ACSA’s 2022 Business Leader of the Year. Both are leaders in the Mt. Diablo (California) Unified School District.
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