PSS school bus drivers: The kings of CNMI roads


Saipan Tribune spent one morning with some Public School System bus drivers to get a first-hand look into the lives of these men and woman who transport our children to and from school, twice a day, five times a week.

We were privileged to meet and know this group of individuals who are passionate and dedicated to their jobs, each one embodying the qualities of what a PSS bus driver is.

So who is the PSS bus driver? He is one who commands respect, a multi-tasker with a heart full of compassion, patience, and loads of understanding to be able to work with students of different ages and upbringing.

Despite the long hours and the exacting demands of the job, the PSS bus driver is also a motivator, cheerleader and, at times, advocates of our school children. And each of them takes their job seriously because nothing is more important for them but the safety of our children on the road while they are on their way to and from school.

A dream job come to fruition
Regular Bus Driver

Being a bus driver is a dream come true for Roman M. Reyes, who is known to his students as either Mr. Roman or Mr. Reyes. “When I was in school, I regularly rode the bus for about six years. I was very nosy, always asking our bus driver a lot of questions about the bus and how it works. Ever since I was a kid, I have always dreamt of being in this environment, taking care of students.”

The 27-year-old Reyes is in charge of about 60 students attending Kagman Elementary School, ChaCha Oceanview Middle School, and Kagman High School. Despite being a bus driver for just 10 months, Reyes said the challenges of working with students of varying ages has so far been so rewarding that he does not want to consider transferring to any job any time within the near future.

“My goal is to make sure that my students are safe from the time they get on the bus until the time I drop them home. We treat our students as if they are fragile packages that need a lot of care,” he said.

It may not be an official part of their responsibilities, but being a bus driver also means being a mood gauger. “Every day with my students is a different day. Their moods when they get on the bus is a key indicator of how their day will turn out,” said Reyes.

He said dealing with children aged between seven to 18 years old may pose a huge challenge, but he says open communication and mutual respect is the key to a harmonious relationship between a bus driver and his students.

“I treat them as if they are my own children. Talking to them allows me to understand them more. I just try to get along with them as much as I can to see where they are coming from. All students are different, they all come from different households so it’s important that I get to know them so I know when to help and how to help when they need help,” he said.

Reyes said his interaction with his students have helped him relate to his own nephews and nieces. “I learn a lot from my bus riders and whatever lessons I learn, I try to apply them in real life situations.”

Reyes considers the appreciation his students and their parents have shown him as the biggest rewards of his job. “My students have given me many gifts during appreciation day to show me how much they value me. I was really surprised, thankful, blessed and so proud of what I do,” he added.

With school opening just a few weeks away, Reyes has this friendly reminder to his students and parents: “Please be at the bus stop 5 minutes earlier than the pick-up time. Parents should not worry because I will take care of their children. I will keep them safe when I pick them up and drop them home.”

The safety of students is our topmost priority
Regular Bus Driver

For the past four years now, Jonathan S. Kapileo has been the bus driver of students from the San Vicente and Dandan Elementary Schools and Marianas High School. He traded his tourist bus driver uniform to be a school bus driver because he finds it more engaging and rewarding to be involved in the process of helping students learn.

“It’s a good feeling dealing with kids, you learn a lot. Dealing with kids requires being sensitive to their attitude and behavior. You have to get your priorities straight first and be open to learning their attitude and behavior because everything all comes down to the kids,” he said.

Kapileo said being a school bus driver is not an easy task since one must be an efficient multi-tasker to succeed. On top of their main duty of driving the bus and keeping the students orderly during their travel to school, school bus drivers now also have to implement the 3W’s of COVID-19 protocol—masking up, hand sanitizing, and physical distancing—before they can close the bus doors and drive to their next destination.

“As a bus driver you need to stay focused because the safety of our students is in your hands. You cannot be distracted with your own worries. When the students are on the bus, your priority is your student’s safety,” he said.

This father of four says that in order to be an effective and efficient school bus driver, one has to have patience, understanding and greater awareness of one’s surroundings because you are the only one on the bus that is present and capable of keeping students safe.

Kapileo says he enjoys his job mainly because he deals with kids of different ages ranging from seven to 18 years old, from kindergarteners to senior high school students.

“I enjoy this job because we deal with different kids. Every child is different. Every kid grows up in a different environment. We can’t control that, but when they get on our bus we need to be able to control them and work with them, not just for our own safety but the safety of others as well. We drive, we teach, we help our students along the way so that when they get to school, they are ready to learn.”

Kapileo has this kind reminder to local motorists: “Please pay attention on the road and do not ignore our stop arm because a driver’s recklessness makes it more dangerous for everyone on the road, most especially, our children.”

The Disciplinarian
Regular Bus Driver

John O. Taitano believes he carries the reputation of being the “most hated” PSS school bus driver because he runs his bus like a tight ship. Under his watchful eye, his students either follow his rules or they have the choice not to take his bus.

But, despite what his students think he is, Taitano is, in fact, a very congenial man with an easy smile and welcoming demeanor. He just happens to be a strict disciplinarian who wants order among his students. He says his reputation gives him the motivation to wake up in the mornings, eager to do his job.

“Be a thermostat, not a thermometer” is Kapileo’s guiding principle. He believes that a school bus driver should be able to gauge the mood of his students so he can provide them the support they need to be ready for the school day. “Every student comes from a different background and circumstances. As the school bus driver and being one of the first people they will interact with during the day, it’s important that we set them up for success by lifting their spirits, cheering them up, and paying them extra attention when they need it. A cheerful morning greeting and a welcome smile always works wonders,” said Kapileo.

This 12-year veteran of the fleet acknowledges that, while the job may be hard it is very rewarding. Earning a good, livable salary is just one of three big takeaways of the job. Second is the opportunity to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of human nature based on their daily interaction with their students. For Kapileo, most important of all is the good working relationship the bus drivers have with each other on top of a work environment that encourages unity and camaraderie. “I love these guys. You can never find a better group of people than my co-workers. They are what keeps me in my job. They are just awesome.”

He is also very proud of the bond he has with his students. “I’m proud of the trust my students have on me. Being from the south where my students are also from, they ask my help to mediate and solve problems they have in school.

Kapileo has this message for students and parents this coming school opening: “II hope that they [students] do not forget to bring their masks and observe the safety protocols. To the parents, help us help them make it easier and safe for their children to attend school.”

The Joys of Working With SPED Students
Bus Driver for SPED Bus
Bus Conductor for SPED Bus

At 32 years as a PSS employee, Rita R. Agulto is the longest serving employee in the group. She started in the school system in 1998 in the Food Service Department and then moved to the Office of Pupil Transportation to become a school bus conductor until finally becoming a school bus driver for students with special needs.

A mother to six children but now an empty nester, Agulto said she will not trade her job for any other, even within the Public School System. “I like working with special needs students. I learn a lot from them, especially communicating through sign language. I enjoy driving the bus for them and making them feel comfortable on their way to school. “

Similar to the other bus drivers, Agulto said the job challenges can be big at times, most especially since she handles special needs students. “Sometimes, some of the students do not want to follow instructions and they just want to sit anywhere. But we try and work with them. We try to make them understand even if it’s hard for them to do that,” said Agulto.

Bus conductor Norbert L. Ambalan shares Agulto’s sentiments, but he says in the end and after much coaxing, students will “eventually listen and follow.”

Agulto said she works with the students’ teachers in threshing out issues. For the most part, Agulto and Ambalan agree that while their students may not be as communicative as other students, their students are more disciplined and respectful.

“I like making our students feel good. I treat them like they are my own kids. …I do not like it when other people look down on them,” said Agulto.

A former cook at a local restaurant, Ambalan is the newest addition to the team, having been in the system for just nine months. He applied for a job in the bus fleet, but he did not expect to be assigned to special education.

“I have no regrets. I like my job and I like working with our students, I will not trade this job for something else, said Ambalan.

This father to a 2-year-old son and another child on the way, Ambalan said he applies the lessons he has learned interacting with special needs students to his son, especially when it comes to discipline.

Ambalan urges motorists to be cautious while driving, especially when they see the SPED bus. To parents, Ambalan asks for their patience during mornings when their children are not in the mood to ride the bus and go to school. “Please listen to them,” he said.

TERI M. FLORES, Correspondent

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