I wanted to share my recent Walking in the Shoes experience and the time I spent with Deb Dobson, bus driver and transportation virtuoso. This story is a little long, but when you spend 10 hours riding buses all day, one has lots of time to reflect!

I arrived at the bus yard at 6:20 a.m. to clock in. Transportation even made me my own time card. I believe it may be the only department that still uses punched time cards, although they are also piloting a computerized time system.  As we went outside, Deb and I started with our bus safety pre-check which involves checking the oil and other fluids, looking for leaks, checking belts, tire pressure and making sure all our lights work. (This whole process reminds me of my days as a tour bus driver in Alaska, a job I had to help pay for graduate school when I attended Western Washington University.)

Bus Driver, Deb

I learned that Deb has been a driver for 18 years and on her current route (Squalicum, Alderwood and Shuksan) for five years. She’s a Bellingham native and attended Whatcom Middle and Bellingham High schools.

The first thing Deb asked me was “When was the last time you were on a school bus?” and I replied, “Last week…with you!” Deb had driven our Parent Advisory Committee up to Western’s Planetarium for a field trip. (We’re contemplating incorporating a planetarium field trip as part of our curriculum.)

At 6:48 a.m., we arrived at our first pick up, but the student was not there. Deb told me that the student has a hard time getting up early enough to catch the bus an hour before school starts, and mom is frustrated that she has to drive him…a good example of the challenge of early high school start times.

At 7:13 a.m., we make our last high school pick up at Alderwood Elementary; we now have about 30 high school students on the bus.

7:28 a.m., we arrive at Squalicum HS – students have about 15 minutes to grab food, stop at their lockers and get to class on time.

A couple reflections: Deb played music during the bus ride, creating an enjoyable, relaxed vibe. Many kids were engaged with some kind of technology – phones, music, computers, etc.  Others were talking with seatmates. Deb and I also talked about the pros and cons of having a second staff member or even volunteer on some of our routes to help coach/train our students. I was wondering when a driver is driving, how can they effectively manage all of the kids and ensure their safety? Our drivers are in a unique position given they are trying to navigate roads and traffic while also managing kids.  In partnership with the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation, we are looking to hire a volunteer coordinator who could help recruit volunteers for our schools. Maybe we should consider volunteer bus riders, too?

Back to the bus: time to pick up Alderwood Elementary kids. One of the highlights of this trip was my interaction with kindergarten twins who told Deb that they liked her “new students,” referring to me and our videographer Lars. The girls offered me a bracelet and gave me wide, toothless grins. This particular ride was quiet and uneventful (that’s some foreshadowing of what’s to come), but Deb assured me that it was usually much louder. Lars and his camera have been following me around this school year to film my Walking in the Shoes experiences, similar to last year’s. We plan to show this year’s recap at the Back to School Breakfast on August 25 and want all our staff (including our bus drivers!) to be there.

Probably TMI, but another reflection is I found myself a little uncomfortable at times during this ride. I’m not used to going too long without water/coffee, snack or bathroom break!

Our morning drop off to Shuksan MS was great – wonderful kids excited as far as I could tell for a great day of middle school. Then back to the bus yard to clock out. We had from 9:10-10:40 a.m. to take a break and have our own time. Deb says she usually goes home to walk her dog or runs errands.

At 10:40 a.m., we clocked back in and this time, we were in a smaller bus heading to Geneva to pick up prekindergarten kids. I spent a day in this same class for my very first Walking in the Shoes experience last year.

11 a.m., pick up seven kids at Geneva. One little guy was crying, so we had to pull over and he said he really wanted to sit by me. I told him I would rotate around the bus as students got dropped off and he perked right up. Then, just as we were continuing our route, a student started to have a severe seizure. We were in Sudden Valley, and Deb pulled the bus over and called 911. We took turns holding the little girl as she went completely unconscious. The other kids were amazing and just sat there quietly, watching and listening. It was a very apt reminder of all the responsibilities a bus driver has to ensure our kids are loved and safe. On any given day, they are part- nurse, part-coach, part –caretaker, while also driving a massive vehicle. The paramedics, firefighters and ambulance staff arrived and we handed our little one over to them; she was at that point starting to regain consciousness.  I observed amazing teamwork, between transportation, school and district office staff and our emergency responders.  Later in the day we called mom and heard that her little girl was doing better and she thanked us for all our help.  This was a pretty intense experience…having a student lying in your arms, not responding…makes me think of “in loco parentis”…referring to the legal responsibility we as educators have in taking the place of parents while student are at school.  It’s not just teachers and principals, but all staff.  What an amazing and important responsibility.

After the pre-school drop-offs, we picked up Birchwood fifth graders from Whatcom Falls Park  field trip. There, Deb ran into a student she used to drive every day, and he was so excited to see her. It was a true “Promise in action” moment  that showed how much she loved and respected her kids and how we can all make connections that can last a lifetime.

Our afternoon was full of loud bus rides home with lots of energy. I wasn’t able to get out of my seat to help manage kids, and I found that a bit challenging. I had some great conversations with students about current jobs and future aspirations.  I also enjoyed a conversation with a middle school student who wants to learn more about culinary arts. We talked about our new Options and Sehome high school facilities and the possibility of a culinary arts program.

Big picture, what a day! Over 10 hours, we logged 130 miles and transported nearly 100 students. Deb really knows her kids, says good-morning to each one by name,  and it’s obvious that both Deb and our students have a lot of mutual respect and love for each other.  Thank you Deb and thank you bus drivers!  You play an important part in The Bellingham Promise and the development of our students.

Happy Wednesday and have a great rest of your week and an enjoyable Memorial Day Weekend!

Greg Baker

6 Comments

  1. Your Comment about Volunteer Bus Riders=many years of ?’s.
    If the District charged a minimal Fee for employees-we would increase our budget, lessen the no. of cars in Bellinghams’congested areas, provide an increased amount of awareness in our District Community into educational realm of our jobs, hopefully, empower the individual responsible for the buses safety.
    Thank you, Virginia C. Parine, Para-Educator, Sehome HS.

    • Virginia,
      Thanks for the response. I’m wondering if you are asking about employees riding on our school buses to/from work? If so, I’d be happy to talk with you further about this idea. You can email me directly or give me a call. Thanks again!
      Greg

  2. I really like the idea of Walking in the Shoes of various District participants. I would like to respectfully suggest you consider Walking in the Shoes of a parent (of elementary school children) who works, has no stay-at-home partner, and no relatives in the area on the 10 Teacher Workdays that are scheduled throughout the year. Please consider this and I imagine you will see that your choices are to a) find someone to take care of your kids on 10 random Fridays (please arrange this yourself so that you can truly walk in the shoes of working parents); b) use your allotted vacation time to stay home with your children on the 10 teacher workdays (please actually use your own vacation time for all 10 days to truly get the experience of walking in working families’ shoes); c) bring your kids to work with you at the District (again, please do so on all 10 teacher workdays this year). (Of course these options are for people who *have* paid vacation, can afford to pay for Friday care, and who *can* bring their kids to work–options not available to workers in many other jobs.) Thanks very much for considering it. The 10 teacher workdays are an incredible imposition on many, many families. It’s hard for me to believe that the Bellingham School District is anti-family, though one could certainly conclude that from this policy. I prefer to believe that those who implemented this schedule simply don’t have to Walk in the Shoes of working parents who have no stay-at-home partner or relatives in the area, so they just don’t understand the family hardship this policy creates.

    • Thank you so much for your comment.

      I understand the complexities of our school calendar, but I certainly do not know everyone’s unique situations. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and what is not working for your family and schedule.

      That said, I also know that it’s not possible to create a perfect calendar to suit every family’s needs. Our calendars are part of our regular negotiations with our teachers association; they are not tied to policy.

      We have been working with community partners to find opportunities for both after-school and Staff Learning Fridays (the “no school Fridays” you alluded to), specifically at the elementary level where our concern is the greatest. Some of these community partners include the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA.

      I’d really like to meet or talk with you to hear more from you and brainstorm ideas. How can we increase opportunities for kids when they aren’t in school? It’s a big question that impacts many families.

      We’ve taken some steps recently to help with after-school opportunities at Shuksan Middle School thanks to our 21st Century Community Learning Center grant and at Alderwood and Cordata elementary schools thanks to a grant from the United Way and partnership with Western Washington University. But there’s still more work to be done.

      And thank you for the idea for Walking in the Shoes. I’m about to begin my “3.0” version. It’s been incredibly eye-opening. My first year, I shadowed students and teachers. Last year, I walked in non-teaching staff’s shoes. And this year, I’m back to shadowing students, but this time with a focus on students with special circumstances, including homeless students, those in life skills program and English Language Learners (ELL). I’d love to include parents and families – let me know if you’d be interested in participating.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  3. I think this process you are going through to ride along on the bus is great. My husband briefly worked as a bus driver after our kids were out of school and he wanted some added income. He found the experience incredibly challenging and chose to stop doing the work for a couple of reasons. The student behaviorial management aspect of the job was much more difficult than he had expected and he did not feel as though he could adequately pay attention to the road, drive safely and monitor the behavior of the kids on the bus. He felt that to safely transport the kids two people should always be on the bus–one to drive responsibly and safely and another to monitor the student behavior. He reflected that if he had known how challenging it is for the bus drivers to keep the kids safe and drive safely at the same time–he would have preferred our kids not ride the bus!

    • I love the feedback, and I really appreciate your thoughts on the challenge of having only one adult on a bus full of kids. I had a similar thought when a student was having a seizure during my “Walking in the Shoes” day with the driver. That said, it’s all about resources. We could provide resources for another adult on a bus, but then would we have to give something up in the classroom or elsewhere? It’s a hard topic that we’re still wrestling with and will likely continue to work through.

      I’d also add that we’ve made some strides to help reduce behavior issues on the bus. We installed cameras on the buses, and our drivers attend regular trainings to help work with students on positive behavior and setting safe expectations. Our drivers and school principals have also begun to meet on a regular basis, which wasn’t happening consistently across our school system. Those meetings have helped build relationships and both parties benefit from sharing information about students. But again, we’re looking at ways to get creative and how to best support both drivers and students.

      Thanks again for the comment.

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