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Kay Yates: An Arkansas Bus Driver Who Goes the Extra Mile

Kay Yates is a very special lady, and all her kids know it.

Her "kids" aren't just her family members. They include every single child she's ever driven on a school bus — and Yates has been driving for 33 years, so she's driven a lot of kids. "Once they ride my bus, they're mine," she said with a smile.

Yates, who works for the Springdale School District, has been a member of the Arkansas Education Association since 1997. She cares for the children who ride her bus as if they were her own, giving them Band-Aids if they scrape a knee, a pencil if they lost theirs and need one for class, and more important, cheery words for each one at the beginning and end of each day. "Sometimes when they get off in the evening, I'll tell them, you get your homework done first!" She laughed.

Yates is a professional bus driver in every sense of the word. She frequently participates in bus safety and evacuation drills, but she knows that a child's well-being includes far more than just a safe ride to and from school. "The one thing I want to do is to make sure that when they get off the bus, they will be motivated to go to school, they'll be focused to go to school, and they'll want to learn while they're there," Yates said.

But… how does she do that while she's driving a bus? According to Yates, it's really not that hard. "The things that work are to be polite, always say please and thank you. Treat them with respect, and they'll treat you with respect," she said.

Of course, she gives her kids quite a bit more than courtesy while en route. She has a ready supply of books and self-contained games and puzzles, simple things that help a child to concentrate, and keep their hands and minds occupied. She watches garage sales and visits the local Dollar Store, and keeps a basket behind the driver's seat filled with books from kindergarten through the fourth grade reading levels. Puzzles, many which her husband makes, are usually the bent wire type that requires the child to unlink one piece from the whole.

To demonstrate how effective such simple tools can be, she described one student whom others might find troublesome. She learned that he loves math, and so she found an old, discarded math book that she lets him use on the bus ride. "I asked him, would you like to see how they used to teach math? And I handed him a piece of paper and a pencil and let him do math," she said. "I don't have trouble from this student because I've developed a rapport with him."

It's not all fun and games, though. She has five rules on her bus, and every child is expected to obey them: keep your backs in the seat, keep your backpacks on your lap, keep your mouth reasonably quiet, always listen for instructions, and when you get off the bus, stay out of its danger zone.

Yates uses a reward system to encourage the kids to follow her rules and promote good behavior. She buys plenty of stickers during her visits to the Dollar Store, and each well-behaved passenger gets one every Friday afternoon. Candy is often a once-a-month treat, and at the end of the year, she presents her "top" children with certificates. "My husband cuts the wood, and I sand and varnish them," she said. Certificates are attached to the wood and covered with glass.

"Children need to be recognized for good behavior," she said. "I would rather recognize a child for good behavior than have to do disciplinary slips on them for bad behavior. If I recognize them for good behavior, they also become motivated when they get off the bus."

Yates modestly admits that she's gained some recognition herself, by students and parents alike. She learned that a former student had honored her by giving her first daughter the middle name of Kay. Then Yates told the story of a little boy just entering kindergarten, who was scared to ride the bus. His mother was worried too, and near tears as she put him on the bus for the first time. "I said, he'll be all right. I promise to bring him back real safe," Yates recalled. "And the mother said, I trust you — I've already heard about you."

These rewards are more than anything Yates expected when she became a bus driver. She said she began interacting with her young passengers out of necessity, but over the years, the relationships she has forged with these children has come to mean more to her than any career. Thirty-three years might seem like a long time to drive a bus to many people, but not to Yates. "I started driving when my youngest son started the first grade, and I've been driving ever since, she said. "I'd say I was going to quit, but I haven't done it yet!" And if the kids and their parents have any say in the matter, she never will.

This article appears courtesy of the Arkansas Education Association.