While caring for students at the start of their day, Verndale bus drivers Daryl Jacobson and Steve Techam agree that helping students set a positive attitude is important. Jacobson is a substitute and activities driver and Techam is an activities driver.
Even if the meaningful start doesn’t click for the students, “We don’t want them to start out a grumpy day,” as Techam said. Jacobson also serves as the associate pastor at Verndale Alliance Church and Techam is a long-time church member at Joyful Spirit United Methodist.
“When I drive routes and sub, you don’t know a lot of the kids that well but to be able to greet them in the morning and hopefully help them to get off to a good start to the day and have a positive experience that’s always a goal,” Jacobson said. “You think about when they get on that bus you can set a tone for the whole day by what happens there in that morning route.”
The activities drove both to get their bus driving licenses: Techam in the 1970s as a teacher and coach and Jacobson in 2018 to spend more time with his grandchildren after retiring from his chaplain position at Lakewood Health System. With two high school and two younger grandchildren, Jacobson has driven for football, basketball, baseball, volleyball and softball and looks forward to many more opportunities. He loves the commitment he sees in the players which creates a totally different bus atmosphere, plus drivers get to watch the games.
While traveling with the teams, they’ve had plenty of time to get to know the players. With these long-formed friendships, Techam said athletes might share a story with him that he didn’t realize was meaningful or send a letter of thanks. Over the last few years, those interactions have included more and more thank yous, with about 70% of the students thanking him for driving to different events, according to Techam.
“I think being able to provide kids the opportunity to participate in different events, … an art show or a state wrestling meet or a state football tournament, I think it’s important,” Techam said. “And one thing I notice today, kids get off the bus and they say, ‘Thank you for driving.’”
"Parents are trusting you with their kids and they’re not replaceable. Anything’s replaceable but kids."
— Steve Techam, bus driver
As he’s seen students’ growth from elementary to high school, Techam gladly said he’s “made a lot of friends.” He started with the football team and then wrestling back when there were only boys sports teams. On a trip to a state wrestling tournament, he remembers one Wadena wrestler marveling at the size of the buildings.
“We were in the Target Center and he was looking around and he had never been in the Cities before and he was looking around and he says, ‘I wonder how many hay bales we could get into here?’” Techam said with a smile. “In the 70s they never saw buildings that big and … people didn’t travel like they do today.”
Jacobson also knows the bus is a “whole different culture” and he wants to provide a safe and supportive environment as best as possible for students from tough situations.
“95% of the kids it’s positive, it’s a good thing and those where it’s not positive you hope you can help them to find their way and learn those important life lessons and see positive change,” Jacobson said.
With the large number of students, Techam said the seating charts at the beginning of the 2020 school year were helpful. And there are always sets of rules on the bus that one or two kids don’t want to follow either, especially when there is a substitute and the driver can’t easily call out their names, as Jacobson said.
“Lots of kids on a bus,” Techam said about the challenges of bus driving. “And when we say it’s a 72 passenger bus that’s three kids to a seat and 48 kids fit comfortable on a bus but not more than that.”
With the attitude setting moments at the start of the day, just know bus drivers are smiling under the masks because they afterall are kept young this way too.
“Parents are trusting you with their kids and they’re not replaceable. Anything’s replaceable but kids,” Techam said.
Interested in being a bus driver?
School districts are hiring for part and full time positions. You can contact the school’s transportation director or call the main office for more information.
In his 28 years at Verndale Public Schools, transportation director Wade Kern said filling the positions has been “steadily tougher,” though the district isn’t in a bad position now. They started advertising for one regular route in May and hired a driver in September; the district also has a substitute and activities route position open.
Techam said the average age of bus drivers is 65 years old, though Verndale has mostly younger drivers besides him and Jacobson as retirees. Dairy farmers used to drive a lot, according to Kern and Techam, though many people find it hard to work around the morning and afternoon hours. Kern said the pay is good but young people aren’t able to have bus driving as their only position.
“Maybe the way people are employed today makes a difference so you have to have the older generation do it—as long as we’re healthy,” Techam said.
Wadena-Deer Creek has also been searching for additional bus drivers with two full-time as well as substitute and activity driver positions available. The district usually hires people as substitute drivers and then moves them to regular routes based on seniority as they open up. With the retirements of four bus drivers, the lack of available staffing and Baby Boomers retiring, “we were so short that we’re hiring people as soon as if we can get them in they can have a route,” as Superintendent Lee Westrum explained.
To the student passengers, the bus ride might just seem a way to get to school, home or an activity, Westrum emphasized the responsibility bus drivers have in transporting students. Plus, people need to be OK with driving a large vehicle and enjoy kids.
“The hours are odd, you come in at 6 in the morning and you’re off during the day and then you come back at 2:30 so it’s a tough position to fill so it’s not really appealing to everybody. … You have to be comfortable driving a giant vehicle in bad weather and you have to be in charge of 40 kids so it’s a challenging job,” Westrum said. “I’m very thankful for our bus drivers and the work that they do.”