Jeremy Freeman, 38, has never forgotten the bus driver who took him to school in Kalamazoo, Mich., each morning.
That driver, Tony Spencer, still worked for the district when Freeman joined as a bus driver in 2008. When Spencer became a teacher in 2015, Freeman took over his route.
But this past school year, Freeman hasn’t felt especially sentimental about his job. Nor would he encourage a student who admires him to pursue it when they’re old enough.
The 12,000-student Kalamazoo district has been short at least 15 to 20 drivers all year—a scenario that has dogged school districts nationwide.
As one of the district’s most experienced drivers, Freeman carries as many as 65 children to and from school, navigates misbehaving students and overworked administrators, and trains new substitute drivers. He’s not surprised districts are struggling to hire people for roles like his.
“When you have a bus driver that comes in making 14 bucks an hour, you get kids throwing stuff at them, you’re writing referrals left and right—nobody wants to do that for such little pay,” Freeman said.
Trainees often find the job daunting at first, and many quit after only a few months. “I’ve had bus drivers crying, coming back saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” Freeman said. (A spokesperson for the Kalamazoo district did not respond to multiple requests for interviews to discuss the district’s staff shortage woes.)
An increasing number of people in roles similar to Freeman’s are saying the same thing.
He is one of more than 1 million nonteaching staff members who are critical to the operation of the nation’s schools—and ultimately, to students’ learning. Faced with the uniquely grim conditions of working in-person during a pandemic, and the chronically low pay and minimal job security that have long characterized these crucial roles, many workers are retiring early, quitting for jobs in the private sector, or not applying at all to work for schools.
“Working conditions in schools are student learning conditions,” said Henry Tran, an associate professor of education at the University of South Carolina, and the co-author of a recently published book examining why the teaching profession is diminishing. “What is needed is a talent-centered education leadership approach that cultivates the conditions where educators and staff are inspired to come to work, do their best work and are supported in their endeavors to do so.”
Working conditions in schools are student learning conditions.
Misbehaving students, overworked administrators, and complicated routes
In Kalamazoo, bus routes are longer this year as drivers cover for others who quit or take time off. Some students are spending an hour or more just to get to school. No wonder they’re antsy, Freeman said.
Dealing with students’ behavior on the bus has become a bigger part of the job in recent years. Freeman has had students throw carrots, batteries, pencils, and apples at him while he’s driving. Some students have punched and shoved him, or stood up and threatened to jump out a window while the bus is on the highway. He’s always the only adult on board.
Freeman writes referral after referral, but the same students appear on his bus day after day.
Many students in Kalamazoo, where Census data show the median household income is $43,222, and 27 percent of residents live in poverty, don’t have another way to get to school.
“Some of these kids don’t want to get off the bus to go home. They’d rather be on the bus with you,” Freeman said. “You’re more of a parent to them than their parents are.”
Freeman’s fellow school staffers nationwide share his view that what they do matters for students.
Nearly 90 percent of paraprofessionals, instructional assistants, bus drivers and other classified workers who answered a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey in May said they at least somewhat agree that their jobs have a big impact on student learning.
Slightly more than half said the recent nationwide crush of staff shortages has worsened student behavior, and 48 percent said those issues have affected students’ learning.
Chronically low pay makes sticking with the district difficult
Nonteachers make up more than half of the nation’s K-12 workforce. Only 24 percent of school workers who answered the EdWeek Research Center survey said they think their pay is fair for the work they do.
The starting salary for a bus driver in Kalamazoo is $14 an hour. The Michigan Department of Education doesn’t track salaries for the state’s school bus drivers, a spokesperson said. But 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show bus drivers in the state make, on average, $38,960 a year, just slightly above the national average of $36,000.
During Freeman’s first year in the district—about 14 years ago—he made $11 an hour. Now, he makes $20.90 an hour, and gets paid for 45 hours a week during the school year, and 20 hours a week during the summer.
That income is often insufficient to support his family of five.
At times, Freeman has held a second job while driving the school bus. For six years, he drove a county bus that took senior citizens and people with disabilities to doctors’ appointments. He quit that job to drive a party bus on the weekends—but when COVID hit, that business shut down.
Slightly more than one-third of survey respondents said they have at least one additional job. Seven percent said they have three jobs. One percent said they have four jobs. And nearly three-quarters of respondents with multiple jobs said their other job is outside of K-12 education.
For the moment, Freeman doesn’t desperately need a second job, but he likely wouldn’t have time for one anyway.
“I’m literally here from 5:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night,” Freeman said. “That takes a toll.”
He gets a break from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., but with gas at $5 a gallon, he doesn’t see the point of driving 20 minutes each way just to spend an hour at home.
Other drivers want a second source of income but can’t take one because the school district sometimes calls unexpectedly and drivers are expected to report for duty.
At least two of Freeman’s colleagues are currently experiencing homelessness, he said. “You’re got a driver that was making just barely enough to make somewhat of a living without being homeless, and now the rent is almost double what it is before, and they can’t afford it.”
Three percent of the 4,030 education professionals who answered the EdWeek Research Center survey said they’ve experienced homelessness because they weren’t paid enough at school. Eighteen percent said they’ve pawned off items they wanted to keep in order to earn more money. Fifteen percent have participated in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Two percent were evicted.
Even with frustrations, plenty of reasons to stay
Freeman points out that working in fast food, as he used to do, is more lucrative now than becoming a new school bus driver. Last month, he raised many of these concerns before the Kalamazoo school board, imploring members to find room in the budget for substantial wage increases.
Even if he desperately wanted to quit, though, he’d be reluctant. He needs the district’s strong—if pricey—health insurance benefits for his family.
Being a bus driver or serving in another supplemental school role isn’t all bad, of course. One-third of survey respondents said they’re very satisfied with their jobs, and another 45 percent said they’re somewhat satisfied, even with all the frustrations they’ve aired elsewhere.
Seventy-three percent of survey respondents said they stick with these jobs because they like working with kids. But only 5 percent said the pay was better than for other jobs they could find.
Freeman believes bus drivers like him deserve a living wage, more support in dealing with students while on the road, and a schedule that allows drivers to easily pick up a second job if they need to. School districts will have to find ways to make the job more appealing if they want people like him to stick around.
“It’s not like you have a boss that’s right behind you at all times. You’re on the road, you get to drive, you get to enjoy the weather when it’s not too hot,” Freeman said. “But it’s hard to see the perks when you feel like you’re being treated like crap.”