George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

What Principals Can Learn Riding the Bus

They’ll get to know the drivers and the students—and the interaction between them—and be better prepared for any issues that may come up.

January 10, 2023
ferrantraite / iStock

My principal mentor shared great advice. “Periodically ride your school buses,” he said, “before and after school as much as possible. You’ll be surprised what you will learn.”

Late one Friday afternoon after everyone else had gone home, I began getting calls from parents inquiring about their children’s late bus. Fortunately, I had followed my mentor’s advice, ridden the route, and become familiar with the area.

As I would quickly learn, the bus had been hit head-on by a garbage truck on a rural road 15 miles from the school. The driver had stopped to drop off a kindergarten student. There were 17 other students remaining on the bus, which was pushed 30 yards down the road upon impact. Miraculously, the driver and her riders, while scared and severely shaken, had escaped unharmed with only minor bruises and abrasions.

I’m forever grateful for my mentor’s guidance.

Besides preparing me for that traumatic event, my mentor’s advice enabled me to gain valuable insights and prevent potential issues from developing at my bus stops. For all principals, assistant principals, and other school administrators who have any connection to school buses, whether they’re district or privately operated, I offer this advice regarding bus stops.

Know your buses, drivers, and bus STOPS 

S—Safety: The safety and security of students on a bus must be your primary responsibility. Children and youth must be trained how to board and depart the bus, how to sit and remain in a seat, and to follow the directions of the driver. When you ride the bus, it’s likely that students will be on their best behavior. But you’ll still be able to gain a sense of effectiveness regarding how they respond to the driver’s directions and the level of respect they share for each other.

Talk with the driver, listen to their concerns, and work to develop and strengthen relationships as you observe all aspects of bus safety.

T—Terrain: It’s important that you know the geography of your district and the names of streets and roads. Riding the bus will enable you to identify key landmarks, traffic issues, and potential safety concerns on the routes, particularly at bus pick-up and drop-off areas. In many areas, students are picked up when it’s still dark. Can other drivers clearly see them? Are students safe while waiting for the bus and after they‘re dropped off? Are there visibility issues that you can address with local traffic and safety officials? When you know the terrain and can confidently describe your concerns, you increase your credibility.

Notice how much parent involvement and supervision, if any, exists. You’ll also gain valuable insights about the neighborhoods where students live. That awareness will help inform you about positive and negative peer interactions when students are at school, the quality of relationships, and foundations of community support. 

O—Operations: Typically, school transportation operations aren’t the principal’s primary responsibility. There are likely other administrators assigned to manage transportation. Yet, when bus conduct referrals are sent to the school, the principal’s attention to those students is needed and expected.

Riding buses allows you to identify potential issues, detect students who should be designated assigned seats, and observe how effectively drivers manage students— just as your classroom drop-in visits enable you to examine teachers’ classroom management. Riding buses is an initiative-taking approach to preventing and solving operational problems.

P—Parents: Parents will respect and be supportive of your initiative and attention to their children’s safety on the buses, your familiarity with the attendance area, and your support of drivers and students. 

You’ll have more credibility when interacting with parents about transportation issues when they know you have routine involvement. When they have serious, legitimate concerns, parents expect the buck to stop with you.

S—Students: When kids know you’re aware of what they’re doing and how they behave on the bus, they’re likely to react in positive ways to their drivers’ directives when you’re not there. More important, you’ll have opportunities to connect with them and build relationships while riding the bus that can strengthen their performance in other settings in your school. The connections you can make with kids, parents, bus drivers, and the community will be invaluable.

Periodically schedule meetings with your bus drivers. Invite them to your school for coffee and doughnuts after a morning bus run, or meet them at a convenient location of their choice. Listen and learn. Being proactive in your work with drivers will reduce the amount of time needed to deal with conduct referrals. The relationships you build will benefit your students, parents, and you in countless ways. You’ll be surprised by what you will learn.

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