Guest column: What it takes to become a school bus driver


So, you want to be a school bus driver. Wonderful, the world needs more people like you, but before you break out the reflective vest and saddle up a 40-foot school bus, let’s talk about what it takes to get there. I bet it’s more than you think … it was for me.

OK, first step is to apply for the job. Well, that’s not easy using the tools the district currently uses for all job offerings, but guess what? You can apply in person, at least until the current crisis is over.

Great, you’ve applied, and let’s say you make it through the interview and are approved to begin training. 

Before you start training, you will need a Commercial Driver’s License. That’s going to require some background checks, some finger printing, some driving history checks, a physical exam and make sure your socks match (OK, I might be kidding about that one).

“What, it’s going to cost me about $400 to do all of this?”

Yep, but have no fear, the district will reimburse you for those expenses after you complete your training and have driven for a total of 200 hours. 

Next up, getting your CDL learner’s permit. Remember when you got your original driver’s license? Yeah, well it’s worse this time around. You have to take, and pass, four written tests at the DMV, and we all know how much fun the DMV is. 

You did it, you got your learner’s permit. Time to hop in the big bus and roll on down the road — well, sort of. Now you have a license to start driving with an instructor. Fortunately, we have a great instructor who only yells once in a while (just kidding).

“How long am I required to drive with a trainer?” you might ask. At least 80 hours of behind-the-wheel time is required before you can be approved for testing. For those of you doing the math, it might seem like that’s only two weeks. Not quite, you only drive an hour or two a day because our trainer also is our dispatcher, and a bus driver, and a consoling ear — you get the picture. Do the math with that in mind, and you find that it will take you many weeks to complete your driver training. It took me eight weeks, and we had five trainers when I was learning.

But wait, there’s more! You must also memorize seven-plus pages of notes on how to perform a pre-trip inspection of your bus.

Yep, you get to learn about leaf springs, power steering pumps, linkages, trailing arms, slack adjusters, minimum tire tread depths (and that varies depending on which tire we are talking about), and a whole lot more.

Now, you might be wondering how much you get paid to train. Well, that’s a bit tricky because while you do earn minimum wage while you are driving, you don’t get paid until you receive your CDL. Don’t go quitting your day job just yet!

OK, you’ve completed your driver training and you’ve memorized those seven pages of notes. It’s time to take the test. Here is where the challenge really begins because finding an examiner that works specifically with school bus testing has become a major problem. It might take a week or four to get you scheduled, but hey, that gives you more time to stay fresh on those previously mentioned seven pages of notes.

Testing time! The day arrives, and you feel like a 16-year-old going to get your first driver’s license. You are so excited! The test usually starts with the examiner going over a little paperwork and then the pre-trip begins. Now if any of you are a little like me, you will go into the exam with the idea that you are going to blow the examiner away with your deep understanding of air brakes, turbo-charged engines and every other detail on the bus. But, guess what? They don’t care; they only want to hear you regurgitate those words on those previously mentioned seven pages of notes — nothing more, nothing less — verbatim.

You did it. You got through all seven pages and only forgot a couple of words — you know, words like “attached” when speaking of the windshield wipers.

Next up is the drive. I’ll admit I found this the easiest part of the whole process. I verbalized everything I was doing and thinking. “Stop at the line; stop at the sign. Looking for pedestrians left and right, looking for cars left and right. Putting my foot on the accelerator pedal, gently applying pressure.” You get the picture. Oh, and don’t forget to read all signs out loud as you pass them.

Hooray! You passed your test and are now a certified commercial driver ready for the road. It’s time for a little district-specific behind-the-wheel training and then you get to choose your route. Let me clue you in to something. Like most things in life, seniority counts in this world, so all those routes that look promising, yeah, they are already taken by senior drivers. You get what’s left. Oh, and it’s only about 25-30 hours of driving a week at about $25 per hour, which means you are making about the same as a normal 40 hour a week minimum-wage job. But, hey, nobody said you were here for the money, right, so let’s move on to driving your first route.

OK, you have finally been cut loose and are ready to do your first morning run tomorrow. This is where I bribed my significant other into going along with me the night before to make sure I could find all the stops. Easy-peasy, right? Oh yeah, it is easy until I get in a 40-foot bus that handles like a drunk buffalo (don’t ask me how I know), with no GPS, and it’s dark, and there are screaming kids in the back of the bus — and an occasional screaming parent outside the bus — and no adults in the bus but you.

Oh, by the way, as I just mentioned, our buses do not have moving-map GPS.  You will do the trip with a printed route sheet: step-by-step instructions on when to turn, when to stop and what time to be there in one hand (did I mention it’s dark out), the other hand on the wheel, one eye outside looking for kids, cars, deer/elk, and one eye inside the bus because little Timmy is playing Tarzan, swinging from seat to seat.

All fun aside, what I have outlined is mostly the truth. I know there are a few of you out there who want to help out, and we dearly need the help. However, my experience is that only one in about six people who apply and begin training will ever complete the task and become a bus driver. The district only has one driver trainer who currently works 60-plus hours a week in other aspects of her job.

As a district, it’s important that we utilize the few resources we have in the most efficient way possible, and it’s my hope that by educating prospective school bus drivers in what it takes to become a driver it will help improve that 1-in-6 ratio.

Even though it’s a tough process to get through, I don’t regret even a minute of it. I am doing something that makes a huge impact in the lives of our children. I enjoy going to work and having a friendly banter with the other drivers (all nice people). However, nothing compares to joy of having one of my students surprise me with a hug or a kind word.  

It’s worth it!


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