As more demanding requirements for entry-level commercial driver’s licenses take effect, classroom and behind-the-wheel training are critical for getting new drivers on the road.
Most districts have an eclectic group of drivers, not only in terms of their cultural background or education but because of their stages of life. The driver’s room may consist of parents who want the same schedule as their kids, those who have dealt with a recent job loss, or retirees from varied industries who don’t want to fully stop working yet—or appreciate the supplement to their pension or Social Security. One thing all of these educators have in common is a love of the pupil transportation industry and sharing information on how to handle the kids, the bus, and all the variables that can happen out on the road, while keeping kids safe.
Donna Boyce said her decision to become a driver trainer was easy because she has been surrounded by great leaders.
“I’ve had wonderful mentors. Jim Ellis and Judy Clark both helped train me for my 19A and School Bus Driving Instructor (SBDI) tests,” she added. “Throughout the process, they told us that you had to have a hook to come right in and get the audience’s attention. At the end of the SBDI course, you’re required to give a presentation that is graded by your peers. I had ‘Eye of the Tiger’ (by Survivor) playing as I came in dressed as a bumblebee.”
Being memorable along with providing what the drivers need to start their career and stay trained is evident in the thank-you’s she receives. “I just got an email from a woman who has been driving 27-years,” Boyce said, “and it made me feel fantastic. She can’t wait for me to come back next year. They give me hugs when I’m leaving, which is just amazing. Yes, the class is two hours long, but it’s a lot of fun when they’re engaged, asking questions, and understanding the issues when we’re discussing different scenarios.”
Boyce is the transportation specialist for the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) school in Ithaca, New York. The BOCES system has 37 campuses, which provide additional learning to high school students for careers in industries such as cosmetology, welding, auto technology, computer technology, and nursing assistant, to name a few. In her role, Boyce travels to the component districts to hold training meetings and is also an advocate for driver education. In June, Boyce will speak to 700 attendees at Cornell University’s Annual School for Highway Superintendents about CDL requirements and the changes included under the new Entry-Level Driver Training regulations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
“I’m all about speaking up, I question everything. I try to make sure I always have all the tools that I need, right down to a little electric bus named Buster, that I use to teach school bus safety to the smaller riders,” said Boyce. “I try to teach everyone, the students, and the bus monitors as well, not just the drivers. I’m mobile now. I’ve been going to the schools, not training just here at BOCES.”
With the BOCES Digital Media Technology students, Boyce has created Safe Crossing posters for the welcome packets handed out at Parent Night in the Trumansburg School District that explain crossing and other bus safety procedures.
“The public needs to be aware of our expectations, and I am a firm believer in educating and accommodating everyone,” she said. “The first day of school is not the day to start educating them. I’m very hands-on, attending these events; and I’ve had other people there as well, handing out the safe crossing information and the expectations of children’s behavior on the bus. We also have them get on and buckle their seatbelt so the first day isn’t the first time they are on a bus.”
Boyce isn’t squeamish about showing training videos, and she tells her audience that they can’t turn their heads away. They have to watch, for instance, an onboard camera video of a driver dragging a kindergarten child down the road who was caught in the loading door.
“It’s hard to watch, but I show it and I tell the drivers that this could happen if they are distracted,” she noted. “Injuries are inside the bus, fatalities are outside. Back when I was driving, there were times when I couldn’t remember if I did my child check because someone called me on the radio, so I did it again, just to make sure. Drivers need to double-check unless they are positive about an issue. We all tend to book appointments right after the morning run, but that’s no excuse.”
Working with administrators is also something that Boyce prides herself on. “Before a meeting, I’ll ask them what’s unique in your district? What are you having an issue with? It might be earbuds, or not doing a child check, so I’ll incorporate that into my talk,” she explained. “The other day, a district asked me to come out to a scene on a main road where the driver had pulled over to look for something on the bus. It was not an emergency, and it wasn’t a good road to pull over on. She didn’t set the brake, and the bus rolled. She tried to get out and the bus hung up. People were saying, well it’s no big deal, there are no kids on, and it didn’t tip all the way over. But I said, ‘No, what I’m seeing here is the potential for broken bones, lacerations, and concussions. That’s what would happen if kids were on.”
Boyce’s advice for those interested in furthering their career is to know your audience, connect with them and find a good mentor for advice.
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Meanwhile, the assistant director of transportation in Aldine Independent School District is Tonya Smith-Davis, a Certified Texas Pupil Transportation Official (CTPTO). This large district near Houston has 700 buses that travel about seven million miles a year, operated by a staff that is trained by Smith-Davis. She’s a 29-year veteran of the Aldine district.
“Just as the children on our buses are individuals when it comes to learning, we don’t have two drivers who are the same,” she said. Her career began when a friend who was a school bus driver got her interested in the job, which, with a three-year-old at home, seemed appealing. Her career grew from there.
“With the school schedule, I got to be home more with my son, but I’m a person who loves to learn new skills, and that’s what really got me interested in teaching,” she said. “I love the energy when I’m teaching, especially feeding the trainees new information and seeing it coming together for them and be successful when they get their CDL.”
Smith-Davis was the training supervisor for the district for about 12 years, and she continues to teach and run the program in her new role as assistant director. She said she is planning the back-to-school refresher, which includes setting up a “roadeo” course in a large parking lot at the educational center. The course will include student loading and unloading, and a practice railroad track, which is built using a section of old wheelchair tie-down rails for the track.
“Our practice railroad track even has as a stop-arm that comes down which we made,” she shared. “Even our returning drivers need their memories refreshed, and to be prepared for whatever situation comes up. I’d rather have them make mistakes in the parking lot than out on their route. We’ve even smoked the bus for evacuation practice in cooperation with the local fire department and have training dolls for putting the pre-k students in harnesses or car seats.”
Smith-Davis added. “Our motto here in our Aldine Training Academy is, ‘Teamwork makes the Dreamwork.’”
She advises trainers to train their trainees to become as successful as the trainer themselves. “I compare training to coaching, giving the trainee the maneuvers play-by-play as you talk them through the process, feeding them the information a little at a time until they get the ‘big picture,’” she said.
Smith-Davis also encourages her drivers to get to know the kids. “We had testing recently, so I encouraged drivers to ask their kids how they did; show that you’re interested in them. Show positivity,” she added. “The bus driver’s comments might be the only positive thing that happens to them that day.”
Another driver took her interest in training new drivers to a whole new level. In Fresno, California, Donna Lopez opened her own facility, The Instruction Hub, where drivers can learn both classroom and behind-the-wheel training for their CDL.
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“I have classroom space, but I don’t have my own bus, so we use their district’s vehicles,” Lopez explained. “I’ve been a school bus driver for 32 years. I opened my school in April 2021. Besides training new drivers and teaching refreshers, I also teach CPR and First Aid.”
Lopez recalled, “During the time when I was a beginning driver, I had a million other things to do; you can squeeze in a lot during the split shift. I was going to school for my degree, and I’d be in the driver’s room doing my assignments, and tell people, ‘As soon as I get my degree, I’m outta here.’ I liked working with the special needs kids on the bus, and I thought it would be awesome to work with them in the classroom,” she continued. “I have a background in social work, and a bachelor’s degree in criminology and restorative justice, so working with kids in school might make a difference – getting to work with them before they went to jail and help keep them out of it.”
Then Lopez was asked to apply for a position as an instructor. “California has the most training for their school bus drivers. It’s the only state where a driver needs an additional certificate to drive a school bus,” she said. “We sit through 40-hours of training with the California Highway Patrol office. We do 20 classroom hours, 20 behind the wheel, and test with the highway patrol, after we do the commercial requirements for the DMV. There are 10-hours of refresher training every year to stay certified. Recently, when the new Entry Level Driver Training Program went into effect, California was already following guidelines that superseded that.”
Although she retired from driving, Lopez keeps her certificate, since California law states that this is necessary for school bus driver trainers.
“At the end of the day,” Lopez said, “I’m still a school bus driver.”