A school bus sits in front of a school

Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a series on Kentucky Teacher about educational support staff.

Lisa Williamson has driven the same route for Crittenden County Schools twice a day every school day for the last 35 years. As a school bus driver, Williamson serves as the link between school and families.

“Some of these kids that I drive, I went to school with their parents or grandparents,” she said. “It’s a small town and you know everyone and you get to know the families and as they go on, you get to know their children.”

A woman stands behind a cake that's designed with icing in the shape of a school bus and the words Congratulations on 35 Years of Driving

Crittenden County Schools staff honored Lisa Williamson for 35 years of service as a school bus driver.
Photo provided by Wayne Winters/Crittenden County Schools

Williamson originally became a school bus driver to help support her family. She had always loved kids but couldn’t make becoming a teacher work due to the time commitment with kids of her own, so she started driving a school bus. That’s when she found her calling.

“I’ve stuck with it and it’s been a blessing,” she said. “Other people don’t see what goes on, on the bus. You make a difference in the child’s life picking them up every morning and dropping them off every night. We see them smiling, ill mood, whatever is going on. It’s rewarding in a lot of ways.”

The biggest responsibility for drivers: being the first person from the school district students talk to each day. It’s a role they don’t take lightly.

“Greeting each student in a warm tone may well be their first conversation of that day no matter what type of house they come out of,” said Paula Allen, a bus driver trainer with Campbell County Schools. “When you break that down as a start to the student’s day of learning that determines their future, it is huge.”

There is no typical day in the life for a school bus driver, according to Allen, who has been a school bus driver for over 23 years. For her, the day begins at 4 a.m. to be in her driver seat by 5:30 a.m. She completes two routes before 8:30 a.m. Allen spends her afternoons in the office for any trainings scheduled that day. Afternoon routes begin at 2 p.m. and most buses return by 4 p.m.

For 15 of her 23 years driving, Allen has served as a Kentucky Certified School Bus Driver Trainer, creating new challenges and opportunities in the job. The training is strict and it should be, according to Allen. The initial training takes approximately 50 hours depending on the experience, availability and attitude of the driver trainee.

“Many candidates come to us expecting to simply be handed the keys. Not so. These are our children,” she said. “Kentucky state licensing, KDE (Kentucky Department of Education), Entry Level Driver Training and district all have mandates and laws that must be fulfilled, and records must be kept for the entire career of each driver.”

Drivers must be prepared for both external and internal problem solving, from any kind of weather condition on the roads to managing student behavior on the bus.

“Thousands of students walk up the steps of our buses, five days a week, twice a day. Every one of them has a problem, a story, a triumph. We see and hear it all,” she said.

With the current bus driver shortage, Allen said all transportation staff across the state from dispatchers to mechanics are picking up shifts.

In some counties, teachers also serve as bus drivers. Curtis Storm, a social studies teacher in East Bernstadt Independent Schools, said he started driving a bus to help with driving to ball games or tutoring. Now, driving a school bus been one of his favorite things to do for the last 15 years.

“Being a teacher and a bus driver, you start seeing a different side to kids and their homelife gives you an idea. You don’t go in (their home) but you kinda know and most of my kids are pretty good,” he said.

Storm said his district’s drivers switch routes every few years for something new every now and then. Even though he’s been on his current route for five years, he’s had crossovers from his classroom and his bus route throughout the years. He likes knowing where kids are from and how it shapes them as students. He plans to continue driving for as long as he can.

“I enjoy doing it,” he said. “Even after I retire from teaching, I will be doing it.”

Williamson, Storm and Allen all agree that what keeps them driving is the enjoyment of the job, despite the challenges. For Allen, a school bus driver is a vital part of a student’s education.

“We are the link from home into the community and beyond,” she said.