Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.07.13A Principal Asks: What About the Buses?

School_buses_004_t614Dianna Reagan is the principal of one of the schools in the town where I live.  She’s data-driven, self-critical, focused on student achievement, and not afraid to take an unpopular stance if it will make her school better.  She’s pretty much the person you want running your child’s school.  Dianna sent me a thought provoking email the other day. She was responding to my recent post on bathrooms and wrote to say it struck a chord. She was off to assess the dynamics of the bathrooms in her school. A few minutes later she wrote back with an intriguing question—she was wondering if (and how) the logic of re-engineering the bathrooms because they are a culture’s weakest link could apply to the only thing that gives them a run for their money: the bus. 

As any administrator knows, managing bus behavior poses a set of unique logistical and cultural challenges that make it roughly the equivalent, in degree of difficulty, as staging the London Olympics. 

Some of the challenges:

  • The buses are almost always managed by people who are outside of the school’s chain of command and/or managerial control.   The bus drivers work for the bus depot. Or for the private contractor who’s replaced the bus depot. Or, if you’re a charter school, for the contractor that’s replaced the depot in the district where you operate but that provides transportation.  In most cases that means you can’t manage, train or select the people  nor design or influence dynamics such as rules or physical space.
  • Buses are manned by drivers who are selected for their driving not for their ability to manage kids– never mind kids behaving poorly. In the rear view mirror.  While one is making a left in heavy traffic.  And of course bus drivers get almost no training in managing large groups of kids placed behind their backs.  And let’s be honest, in many cases the district (or the contractor) is not exactly knee deep in multiple talented applicants for every position.
  • As my informal survey of 1) schools my organization runs and 2) kids with the last name Lemov recently revealed,  the culture of the buses is rocky—the kids expect them to be liminal spaces where the ‘normal rules’ don’t apply and behavior is somewhere between edgy and egregious by tradition. Moreover, the management strategies the bus drivers use are as likely to exacerbate as mitigate problem behavior.  (Example: constant threats without follow-though.)
  • Your management of what happened on the buses is usually based on hearsay and this makes it unreliable, challenging to reinforce even if parents back you and, as a result, inherently time-consuming to manage…. You pull five or six possible witnesses for cross examination to find out what really happened when—and this is my BIG POINT–you should be managing instruction. 

Dianna recently tried to nip bad bus behavior in the bud by going with assigned seats.  A great idea which I know, from the stories that then circulated, earned her the ire of a great many parents with time and energy to demand meetings in an effort to ensure their child’s right to untrammeled freedom of seating. 

Dianna also held assemblies and set up incentives to socialize good bus behavior.  I haven’t asked her per say but my sense is that the results were perhaps marginally positive.

I want to interject here that as the parent of several bus riders in our district, I am STRONGLY in favor of a principal who tries to set some expectations and add some structure to the bus—only in small part because of the destructive, cruel and anti-social behavior that can transpire on there to the full witness of kindergarteners.  The real reason I am in favor of more control over the buses is that a principal’s time—well spent—is the most important resource in the building and I don’t think it makes sense for a great instructional leader like Dianna to be spending her morning cross-examining witnesses and accessories to bus crimes when she could be coaching supporting and developing teachers.  My gosh, if assigned seats and even occasional no talking rules make that happen, I am stuffing the ballot box with yea votes.

The problem of course is that the effects of all of a principal’s efforts are not always a clear win.  For the reasons discussed above, among others, the buses are a quagmire. 

Anyway, Dianna wondering got me wondering. How do you win with the buses? What do folks do to manage bus behavior and to find out what works?

To boil the pot here are some ideas I’ve tried or colleagues I know have tried:

  • Mandated doing of homework on the bus—very hard to do, by the way.
  • Teachers riding the buses with students for the first three weeks of class to set behavioral expectations
  • “Bus passes” given to students with drivers instructed to take them away from students who do not behave. (I’ve tried this personally with students who took city buses in Boston. I went to the bus depot and gave the head of drivers self-addressed stamped envelopes and told him that if any of his city bus drivers ever had a problem with one of our students, he should take his bus pass and mail it to me and I would address with shock and awe.  I never once got a bus pass in the mail. And I am SURE there were students worthy of it.   
  • Group consequences and rewards for bus behavior….often supported by ocasionally “pulling the video.”
  • Loss of bus privileges–i.e. the right to ride–for those who misbehave more than once—these start small (e.g. one day) and increase thereafter.
  • In an ideal world I’d wire the bus with sound and video and do books on tape or educational videos (ie science, nature, history…. We could attack the knowledge deficit at the same time.)  The only reason I choose this over mandated reading or homework is that I’d be loath to do to kids what, done to me, would make me car sick.

Ok…. your turn now. What works or doesn’t with re-working the buses?



6 Responses to “A Principal Asks: What About the Buses?”

  1. April 7, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    Set and reset expectations, pull the bus tape, daily meetings with offenders and repeat offenders, students must get bus write-ups signed by parents, loss of recess, community service as restitution, and eventually loss of bus privileges (in small increments).

  2. Rich Richards
    April 7, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    At Nashville Prep, teachers ride the bus. It provides a great time for me to tutor and allows me to strategically pair shoulder partners based on that night’s math objective.

  3. April 7, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Having teachers ride the bus makes sense from a managerial standpoint, but it gives teachers yet another job to do and teachers are overloaded. Were any other duties taken off of teachers’ plates as they spent (I imagine) 30-60 minutes every morning and afternoon riding the bus? Were the teachers compensated for the additional time they were required to spend?

    Just as a principal’s time — well spent — is one of the most important resources in the building, teachers’ time — well spent — is probably the most important instructional tool that buildings have. Because of this, it makes absolutely no sense to squander teachers’ time on supervising in the lunchroom or on the school bus. Asking teachers to supervise on buses doesn’t solve the time productivity issue so much as displace it from the principal to the teachers.

  4. Doug_Lemov
    April 7, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    for what it’s worth we tried to split the baby so to speak by having our teachers ride for the first two weeks or so (it was less (usually) or more (sometimes) depending on a variety of factors…e.g. in the first year of a new school it was more to build the culture more intentionally). We all knew it was really valuable (teachers especially… they wanted to do it) but we felt it wasn’t where we wanted them spending their time over the long run. as an aside they tended to really like it at the beginning of the year as it let them connect to kids in a different setting where they often had a lot of time to just chat. and they learned a lot about their kids’ lives-a bit like home visits.

  5. Stephanie Nelson
    April 8, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    As someone who gets really car sick, I agree that homework on the bus sounds awful. But, I LOVE the idea of books on tape.

    I realize that this is a really high initial investment, but what if each kid received an ipod (or an ipod shuffle) with a book on tape. In order to have some accountability, scholars could have to write about their book as part of their life work (for the ride home) and first thing when they get in as a do now. This could also be good for kids to get more exposure to advanced books (or provide another way for them to learn to love books – I have heard a few of the Harry Potter’s on CD and they are terrific!) is a great resource for downloading books – I have no idea if they have any non-profit or education specials, but some of their packages are pretty reasonable. And, if you have the kids trading ipods etc. you can really get good use out of the downloads!

    Just a thought. 🙂

  6. Peter Sipe
    April 9, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    On Central Ave in Albany I once saw a school bus illegally pass a stopped school bus. Marvelously, there was a cop right behind who pulled it over immediately. I hope the officer had to use scientific notation to write that ticket.

    Anyway, that, and this post, and the myriad of attendant headaches and expense of school busing make me think the mayor of Bagota had a good point when he said, “If we’re going to talk about transport, I would say that the great city
    is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle
    or bicycle can go safely everywhere.”

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