Crash Course

The sweat on Bob McAllister's bald pate glistens even in the fluorescent light of the Coconut Grove Convention Center on this first day of November. He pirouettes across a blue-skirted stage as he relates anecdotes and quips conspiratorially to the front row. This is a tough crowd -- 2300 Dade County public school bus drivers arrayed before him in metal folding chairs -- and McAllister has a long journey ahead of him.

The Seattle-based educational consultant's mission: to expel traditional, authoritarian attitudes about unruly schoolchildren; to impart new methods of discipline; to boost drivers' egos. But his microphone occasionally cuts out in midsentence, and the group has grown restive, whispering, giggling, shifting in their seats like -- well, like unruly schoolchildren.

"Listen up!" McAllister shouts. No signal of compliance from the audience, whose members journeyed to this dingy place on a glorious subtropical autumn day for two reasons: They were ordered by their superiors to attend, and they were promised a day's pay for doing so.

McAllister works for a group named, in the peculiarly vague lingo of professional consultancy, Strategies Training Systems. His take for the day, $3605 (including travel expenses), is considerably more than the bus drivers will earn.

The one-day, eight-hour course represents a subtle change for the school district, which is bound by law to provide bus drivers with eight hours of training annually. In past years only basic classes were provided, covering the most rudimentary topics, says Jerry Klein, senior executive director of the school district's transportation department. In other words, the drivers were lectured to, shown traffic-safety films, and given flyers.

According to Klein, the union -- Local 1184 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees -- has clamored for more meaningful training, and Bob McAllister represents the district's answer to that oft-repeated request. But the union is not impressed. "That class was disastrous," local president Sherman Henry will huff when it's over, too disgusted to say more.

The union and the school district administration differ about more than just training issues. Henry recently went before the school board to complain that Klein's department had agreed to hire private companies to transport students from their schools to sporting events -- without notifying the union as required in its contract. Three years ago an arbitrator criticized the school board for the same contract violation.

Henry worries that bus drivers -- most of whom are black women -- are slowly losing their livelihood to lower-paid workers in the private sector. Already 17 private companies run 50 bus routes at a cost to the school district of about $1.6 million annually. Adding privately owned buses for sporting events only intensifies his concerns.

Henry thinks the bus drivers need those extra hours to increase their earnings: The highest-paid full-time drivers make only $15,694, plus benefits. (All "full-time" drivers, however, are paid for a 30-hour work week even though many have routes that don't require them to work 30 hours.) But district officials counter that the drivers would be unable to cover their regular routes if they were to begin servicing sporting events as well.

Another complaint from drivers, and one that helped get McAllister invited to Miami, has to do with student misbehavior, and the support (or lack of it) drivers get from school administrators when they discipline their passengers. The course, "Dealing with Young Riders," is divided into five "modules" and is designed to help drivers learn to communicate forcefully with their charges, curb disruptive behavior, and deal effectively with groups.

In his introduction, McAllister encourages his audience to consider the crucial importance of their role as bus drivers. "It is helpful to see your bus as a unique planet, Transworld, moving through the universe," reads the 39-page training manual that Strategies Training Systems developed for use (along with an overhead projector) in presenting the course. "Like Library World or Court World, this planet has its own unique rules and expectations ... you are the Overseer of that planet."

The course also offers helpful hints about communication, starting as soon as the student gets on the bus. "The Purposeful Greeting" sends the message that "I care" and "I'm in control," the manual says. Here's one example of a purposeful greeting:

"Simply make eye contact and say, 'Good morning/afternoon! How are you doing?'"

By about two o'clock, about two-thirds of the way through the course, McAllister has steered his audience to one of the most important lessons, Module Four: Dealing with Disruptive Students. Unfortunately, by this time, he's dealing with a disruptive audience, many of whom aren't paying much attention and have begun talking, not in whispers, but in normal voices. The combined volume reaches roar level. "Anyone who doesn't want to stay in the meeting," says the frustrated lecturer, "can go home." A somewhat empty offer, since the school district bused most of the drivers to the site, but one that does win a few steely moments of silence.

The experienced orator takes advantage of the opening to relate an anecdote. During a past training session in South Carolina, he recounts, a woman walked out of the meeting after McAllister "used the f-word." Says McAllister: "That's a principled woman." But what, he asks, will she do if a child on the bus "uses the f-word?" Pull to the side of the road and abandon the students? "We can't allow that," he coaches.

To teach the drivers to overcome their own instinctive reactions to a screaming, angry youth, McAllister begins to list on the overhead projector the skills he wants them to learn. Skill One: Acknowledge the child's anger. It's important to meet the child's emotions with equally energetic emotions, he explains. But it's hard to hear him, and crowd members are becoming irritable.

"He's trying to get us to use reverse psychology on these kids," one driver whispers to his neighbor. "But these kids can psychologize more than he can."

"Listen up, please!" McAllister cries again, clutching his semifunctioning microphone.

Suddenly a cadre of supervisors, who up till now have been loitering along the sides of the room, snap to action, marching up and down the rows and scolding the whisperers.

"These people [who organized the event] are supposed to be professionals," gripes one exasperated audience member, a woman of about 50. "How can they have so many people in here for a conversation like this? They should know better, but instead they're yelling at us."

On-stage, McAllister advances to the second item on his list. "Ask questions," he writes, and starts to explain that a driver can defuse a potentially explosive situation by getting a fuming child to talk. Again, though, he can't compete with the noise level. He tries a different tack, climbing off the stage. Down at the audience's level, he encourages them to step up to a microphone and share their feelings.

"We're bus drivers," bellows one, obviously near the end of his patience. "We shouldn't have to take this crap from kids! We can't raise anyone else's child!"

Thunderous applause.
Another speaker marches to the mike, but by now the crowd is so jubilant -- clapping hands, shrieking, laughing -- that her soft voice is lost. "She said, 'Are there programs for kids to learn what you're teaching us?'" McAllister paraphrases. (Paraphrasing is one of the communication skills in "Dealing with Young Riders.") "A guy over here says it [discipline] should be taught at home."

Before McAllister can proceed any further, several supervisors interrupt in order to have the drivers sign time cards. Row by row, as they finish signing, the drivers rise from their seats. A horde bolts for the door. One of the supervisors tries to head them off, but he's too late and can only skulk after them. "All hell has broken loose!" he screeches, searching vainly for Jerry Klein, the man in charge.

But Klein has taken advantage of this training session to scoot to the school district's main office on an errand. The drivers file out the conference door. The few who drove here in their own cars gun their engines in the parking lot. "I'm free!" shouts a woman triumphantly as she dashes to her subcompact. Inside, on the overhead screen, McAllister's list still lacks a third skill.

In hindsight, Klein concludes that the lesson was successfully completed despite the clatter. Some drivers did get angry and sputter at the speaker, he acknowledges. But that's all a healthy part of the process. "It's important that they understand what the presenter says," he notes, "and that the presenter understands the level of their frustrations.

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