Principal to Bus Driver

March 3, 2021

One Clarksville principal is determined to be a part of the solution to the critical bus driver shortage. What started as a light-hearted conversation turned into a reality this January, as Emily Clark, principal at Norman Smith Elementary School, became a certified bus driver.

After school, Ms. Clark noticed her students often had to spend time waiting on their bus. Driver shortages require routes that are extended or altered to accommodate over 20,000 students who ride CMCSS transportation. “It’s always very sad when a substantial time has passed and our students are still in the hallway,” said Ms. Clark as she explained where the idea first came to mind.

“Structure is so important in a student’s life,” she said. “It’s key for students, and [the lack of structure] can throw off their whole day.” She knew the shortage impacted students in the classroom and limited social and family time.

When she reached out to Ron Garner, CMCSS Student Transportation Manager, her inquiry quickly turned into a genuine offer. “If you teach me to drive a bus, I’ll gladly take our students home,” she said. This past October, as the shortage coupled with the impact of COVID-19, stretched the Transportation staff further, Garner and Clark began to put the plan into action.

At first, Ms. Clark did not know what to expect. Inside the schools, she felt extremely confident. “Working in the schools, I focus a lot on instruction,” she explained. For over a decade, Ms. Clark has served as a teacher, academic coach, and principal. Driving a bus was a completely new experience, “I learned so much, and it’s given me a whole new perspective on our district.”

Confidence in Training

“There’s so much that goes into the process of what our bus drivers do each day,” she said, explaining everything from the CDL manual, pre-trip inspection, and the daily safety inspections. Ms. Clark joked that she’d never driven anything larger than an SUV before driving a bus.

“I had no idea what an airbrake was, but I reached out to the Transportation Department, and they were so helpful,” she said, remembering her initial apprehension. At first, the process sounds overwhelming, but she is quick to explain the trainers’ support. “I am so thankful for that support. After going through the process, it no longer feels foreign. The training far exceeded my expectations.”

She praised the efforts of her trainer, Staci Cogdill. “[She] gave me the confidence to safely transport our students. Anyone can do this process. The way Ms. Staci taught me the pre-trip inspection and bus safety built capacity within me to have confidence.”

Ms. Cogdill has been with the CMCSS Transportation Department for 17 years. She first joined the district because she wanted a job that still allowed her to be home for her children.

“The main thing people are nervous about is the size of the bus,” agrees Ms. Cogdill. “Once we get people behind the wheel, they say, ‘That’s not as bad as I thought it would be.’ After that, a good trainer can have a new driver ready in about two weeks.”

For Ms. Clark, she completed her training in between her typical day as a principal. “They worked with my schedule,” she said, explaining how they fit her 20-hours of driving training into after-school and weekend hours. “The real-time experience is what creates the processes to become habits.”

All school bus drivers must complete 20 hours of driving with no passengers before their final test. “I found places in Clarksville I didn’t even know existed,” laughs Ms. Clark. The experience of driving in all types of neighborhoods and roadways helps a bus driver, as they must navigate through various routes to pick-up students.

Jennifer Johnson, CMCSS bus driver, began bus driving to support her son.

It’s All About Support

“I would love to raise awareness in the community of the need for bus drivers. I hope we will have community members that want to make a positive connection with students and families,” said Ms. Clark. For her, helping out during the driver shortage allows the opportunity to connect to her students in a new way. One of her favorite things as a principal is supporting her students and teachers. “When teachers are supported, students get the very best quality.”

One of the common concerns from new drivers is the unruly students. However, Ms. Clark does not appear concerned, “Relationships are the core of our success. Mutual respect is everything. It is at the foundation of student success.”

Jennifer Johnson has been a bus driver for eight years and agrees whole-heartedly. “It’s not a stress-free job. It’s promising and rewarding when you build relationships with the children. When you start with building a relationship, you don’t have unruly children.”

Ms. Clark doesn’t have apprehension for her first-time driving. She’s just looking forward to more time with her students. “I’m going to be very excited to see them outside of the school building. It will be another layer of connection.”