A teacher and a bus driver?
DownsAs Jessica Downs prepares for the school year, she’ll be writing lesson plans, arranging for demonstrations and experiments, and getting her science/social studies classroom in order.

She’ll also be reviewing the parts of a school bus, the mechanics on how it works, and learning how to parallel park.

Downs, a science/social studies teacher at Sunnyside Intermediate School, will be pulling double-duty this fall, as she not only teaches in the classroom but becomes certified to drive a school bus.

Growing up in Carroll County, the bus driver urge was strong; Downs says would ride her bike up and down the street, stopping at mail boxes to pick up “riders” on her bus route.

“When I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a teacher and a bus driver,” she says. “Bus drivers and teachers were really influential to me as a kid. All my bus drivers were great growing up. That plays into this. And now, I’m just living the dream – teaching like I wanted to, and now I’m driving a bus.”

Last year, she waited with students who were part of the second route for after-school bus pick-up; the need for drivers means some students have to wait while drivers run their first route. Students were often tired after their long and ready to go home; Downs and Assistant Principal Jason Vandewalle began to joke that maybe she should just get her certification and drive the kids home herself.

Downs began to think, maybe she could help out while achieving her own life-goal of becoming a driver herself.

“If I can help out by getting those kids home, by getting them to and from school safely and on time so their education is a priority, why not?”

So, after clearing a few hurdles with the administration – making sure her driving and the additional compensation didn’t cause an accounting hiccup – she started the training in July.

It is much more intensive than she had imagined. Training involves a three-day course through the Indiana Department of Education, followed by hours spent with a trainer. Drivers must memorize what needs to be done and be able to multi-task, all watching the road and the students.

“There’s a lot more that goes into driving a bus than you would think,” Downs says. “You’re not just watching your own bus but watching everyone else to predict what might happen.”

The No. 1 priority of a school bus driver is safety. Always. School buses are, statistically, safer than riding in your own car. Every rule, every policy Downs must learn and follow is about the safety of students, she says. She must learn every part of the bus and be able to explain to the examiner how each part works – as a driver, it will be her job to do a pre-trip inspection to know if her bus needs maintenance.

But she knows, too, that as a bus driver, she will be the first and last point of contact for students. It is just one more way she can connect with students and help them be successful.

“You make such a huge difference,” Downs says. “I try to touch as many lives as I can as a teacher. But being able to start the morning with these kids and be like, hey, you know what? Had a rough morning? That’s OK – let’s leave it on the bus. Let’s get in this class and have a great day.”

Downs will have taken her exam and plans to be behind the wheel after fall break in mid-October. She is excited about helping out the school corporation yet another way – and about fulfilling her own dream to drive a bus.

And she is ready.

“I am super excited,” Downs says. “I definitely have a deeper appreciation for bus drivers.”

But then, she says, she has one more goal.

“I’m going to recruit some more teachers,” Downs says. “My job is not done.”