For Jessica Bard, getting behind the wheel of a big yellow school bus is as much about being a mentor as a navigator.
The Poudre School District bus router and substitute operator has worked for the school district for five years. Promoted to the position of router last year, she is back on the bus due to the national shortage of drivers. For PSD, the shortage means about 40 fewer operators are on the roads than in previous school years, and thousands of fewer students are riding the bus to school as a result.
The work of a driver, she said, is fulfilling because you get to know students a little bit more every time, they come through the folding doors. Bus operators become advisors and champions to their students.
“You know their personalities, what's going on, when they get new shoes. You got hugs prior to COVID, and you develop a relationship with the kids,” she said, pointing out that drivers get to spend more time with students than people may think. “You become a part of their life.”
Bard thought back to a memory prior to the pandemic, when she invited kids to make artwork when riding the bus. She provided crayons and paper and displayed their finished pieces on the bus for the kids to see. This was special because each piece of art was as unique as the student who made it.
Driving during the holidays also holds a special place in her heart. Kids gave her keepsakes, like a sock snowman one student made in class. These moments remind Bard and other drivers of the differences they make in students' lives each day. In addition to the opportunity to build student connections, the PSD parent enjoyed the role’s flexibility.
“It was nice to have summer and breaks off, following the school calendar,” she said of the three years she worked as an operator prior to her promotion. This allowed her to spend more time with her child.
Although working a split shift during the day may be an adjustment for some, Bard said that “getting up early is nice, and you get used to it. You get to see the sunrise and you get off work around 9 a.m.” After that, operators have four to five hours during which they could go for bike rides, take naps, go grocery shopping -- whatever they want. The evening routine follows that midday break.
Bard said the job is ideal for stay-at-home parents. Operators can get household chores done or workout during their free time between shifts and spend the weekends and holidays with their children. Working for this school district is another positive aspect of the job.
“PSD is a great family centered company,” she said, highlighting the “great benefits, good pay and PERA retirement.” Employees are also treated well, she said, and PSD honors their work-life balance.
The role is also perfect for someone who wants to take on a challenge of safely driving a 12-ton bus around town.
“I was intimidated by the size of the bus, but the training is great, and you get comfortable. It is like driving your personal vehicle, and it has made me a better driver, "said Bard, who encouraged prospective applicants not to be intimidated by the size of a bus.
Drivers must remain focused on driving safely while a lot can be happening around you, including general rowdiness and misbehavior. In addition to providing training for student management, PSD transportation paraprofessionals are a tremendous asset when it comes to addressing rider behavior.
Over time, Bard was able to relate to her student better because of her job. As a bus driver, she has a window into what it’s like to be a student. She learns the latest clothing trends and how they talk, and has a better perception of what her child is going through.
Another benefit of the job is the comradery and time to talk with other drivers, Bard said. Her colleagues are respectful, and most have had other careers in life, including as teachers and engineers. Everyone supports one another, she said.
Prior to COVID-19, the Transportation Department hosted potluck breakfasts (technically lunch food at 9 a.m.). Drivers would also drink coffee, cook in the break room, work on puzzles and ask one another for advice about student management. Bard said that people who work in transportation tend to enjoy working with kids because they are fun and childlike people themselves.
“The bus operators of PSD are one of the backbones of the student experience at PSD. Often the first and last PSD staff member students see each day, they play a huge role in setting the tone for the day for many PSD students,” said Jake Bell, director of Transportation. “A smiling face and cheerful ‘good morning’ can get a student’s day off on the right foot. Drivers work tirelessly, often starting their day around 6 a.m. or earlier and not finishing until after 5 p.m. I am proud of the work they do for our students.”
Erik Aaeng, another PSD bus driver and co-worker of Bard’s, shared that drivers take breaks between routes to chat with one another. Bard’s bus, he said, was always decorated, and she had treats for her kids (prior to the pandemic).
“Knowing the type of person, she is, I am sure the kids loved having her as a driver,” he said. “She is always upbeat and positive. We met in training, and it was just the two of us. She was already there and seated with a friendly smile.”
Sharing her “why,” Bard said she drives a bus because it’s all about working with students.
“It is the best thing in the world, to experience a teacher's life without going into a school but making a difference in kids' lives – not teaching academics but life lessons,” she said. “The kids make your days brighter. I drive a bus because the students make my days brighter.”