I’ve found my way to a new volunteer gig: hosting the hospitality room at CPPHS home band events. This means I get to set up a lovely spread of food and drinks donated by band families to feed the visiting bands’ staff and bus drivers. Judges tend to drop in, too, for a cookie or two throughout the event.
My official role is to keep an eye on crock pots and tidy up regularly to make sure everything remains appetizing. Occasionally, I’m called on to direct a lost student or parent looking for the real band action or the rest rooms.
But I’ve come to realize the hidden joy in my hours in the hospitality room is that I get to spend big blocks of time with bus drivers from all over New York.
These lovely men and woman get up early and stay out late to make sure their marching bands, color guards, and majorettes are transported safely. And in case you were wondering if they like what they do, the answer is almost always yes. They certainly love the kids. That is obvious as they gush over the latest show and keep an eye on the clock to make sure they see their band compete. One time I asked if the ride back would be quiet, and the driver said, “It depends if they win.” She was clearly hoping for a spirited ride home with celebratory kids.
Yet in the many hours I’ve spent talking to the unsung heroes behind the wheel, I’ve learned something important. As much as they love driving and the students, the day-to-day sense of satisfaction in their work hinges on the tone set in the central transportation office.
In some districts, drivers are given a lot of autonomy. Waiting an extra minute for someone dashing to the bus stop or sharing what they learn about the kids with guidance offices is encouraged by these school districts. Drivers are full time employees with full benefits, including summer work detailing the fleet. The level of engagement in these drivers is off-the-charts. They are members of a team and feel like they play a vital role in the school experience for students. The fact they are the first – and last – district employee to interact with the kids every day is something they take seriously.
On the other hand, some districts manage the drivers in a way that makes them feel untrusted, unimportant, and unvalued. That leads to a lack of engagement and satisfaction that even the students can sense. Coupled with contract or seasonal work creating financial instability, these drivers struggle to build relationships with other district members and families. By not including drivers on the team, the directors and students miss out on what those morning and afternoon interactions could be under different conditions.
At the end of the day, transportation costs make up a significant part of any budget. Instead of seeing this as a black hole of time, money, and resources, we (as community members and tax payers) need to see the light. Supporting and rewarding bus drivers might just be one of the best tools we have as we work to make schools safe, inviting, and loving places to learn.
If you’d like to see for yourself, you are welcome to join me in the hospitality room. Just make sure to bring cookies!