What Defines a School
I once met a school bus driver named Donna who hated driving the school bus. She was new to the job and had only accepted it out of financial necessity. Because she was new, Donna was given one of the worst routes in the system. When she first started, the kids ignored her efforts to keep them in their seats. They fought with each other. They showed little respect to her.
I met Donna when I was doing a Youth Frontiers Respect Retreat® for ninth-graders at the high school for which she drove the school bus. One of the best practices on our retreats is to use high school upperclassmen and adult mentors to help lead small-group discussions throughout the day. On this particular retreat, not only did the school recruit 30 juniors and seniors from the school, but they also brought in adults from the community to mentor the ninth-graders around this critical value of respect. These adults ranged from the supervisor at the local Burger King, to an emergency room physician, to local teachers, grandparents and ministers. The school also asked the bus drivers to be in the room. Reluctantly, Donna was one of them.
At first, Donna was resistant. She visibly did not want to be part of the programming. But gradually, she let go and started to get into the retreat experience. In the small-group sessions, Donna listened to kids tell their stories. She learned that many of the kids on her bus route lived lives filled with pain, loneliness and suffering.
Every Respect Retreat ends with a closing campfire. The kids form a big circle. The lights are dimmed. There is a single microphone in the center of the group. Kids have the opportunity to come up and share their thoughts on the day. Often kids apologize to each other for everything from gossip to social shunning to outright acts of bullying.
That day, one of the students apologized to Donna for being a jerk to her on the bus.
Something changed that day for Donna. She began to see her job not as that of a bus driver, but as an elder to the kids on her route. She became friendlier. She also started to do things for them. Some days, the kids got on Donna’s bus to the smell of cookies or brownies. These simple acts — as well as Donna’s change of heart about her role — turned the entire culture of the bus around. These were now “her” kids and they acted accordingly. There was no more fighting, no more disrespect and no more ugly behavior – not toward Donna, and not toward each other.
At Youth Frontiers, we often talk about how the quality of a school should not be judged by how often it wins state championships or how many kids it sends to college. What defines a school is how well the least popular student is treated. As adults, we have to reflect on how even our small behaviors can have a positive – or a negative – impact on the culture of our families and our work places. In Donna’s case, she took what was a stressful, unhappy part of the day for her and for some of her students, and turned it into something good.