FernLeaf is always looking for amazing people to join our incredible team. Bus drivers at FernLeaf have a vital role in our community due to the multiple fieldwork trips students take every year, our robust after school activity schedule as well as the morning and afternoon pick up and drop off routes. FernLeaf bus drivers can often set the tone for a student's day. Read on to learn more about the incredible bus driver community at FernLeaf!
It's 6:20 and 42 degrees on a Friday morning at the FernLeaf Creek Campus. The buildings are dark, but a low, steady rumble sounds across the parking lot and driveway. Randy Teague is propped in the driver's seat of his school bus, coffee mug in hand, waiting for the 20-year-old diesel engine to warm enough for another loop through his Asheville route.
Randy's excitement is clear. While everything he does is built on patience - waiting for the bus to be ready, crawling down the interstate with flashers on in the right lane, listening to stories from students - he's been away for a few days and he is ready to reconnect with "his kids," as he calls them.
After a quick greeting with Vada Williams, his Hendersonville route counterpart, and with the engine sufficiently warm, Randy pulls the door closed and he's off. Not yet 6:30, he heads north toward his first of three stops. Somewhere near Ingles in Fletcher, Doug Dunlap falls in behind him driving the bus that serves students at the Wilderness Campus. Together, they form a parade in the dark, two yellow floats emblazoned with FernLeaf's logo following a route that will take them through Asheville and back again.
Heading south, Vada and Rick Vachon form a similar pair, pacing through four stops in Hendersonville. Even with the tandem buses, it's a practical and efficient system that serves nearly 250 students between both campuses.
"I love it here," Randy says of working at the school. "I learned really quickly that I couldn't be retired." When he decided to retire from both his job as a truck driver and his vocation as a pastor two years ago, Randy realized that sleeping late was not for him. The opportunity to drive a school bus at FernLeaf was perfect, combining his decades of experience as a commercial driver with his natural ability to connect with people.
Randy's long experience behind a big wheel is shared by the cadre of drivers. Both Rick and Vada worked for years as drivers for area district schools; Doug was a bus driver for his high school while still a student; a common practice at the time, but startling nonetheless. The four drivers, each in his mid- to late-sixties, laughs uncomfortably at it now. Serving as a backstop for the team, covering routes when needed and shepherding the school's shuttle system between the two campuses, is Rob Myers, the school's do-all utility fielder.
Experience, while important, is only part of the formula. There is a subtle set of traits, combining commitment, genuine interest, awareness, patience, consistency and care, that sets the drivers apart. Even with an empty bus, those traits and his love for the work are evident as Randy talks about his work while the bus lumbers toward the first stop in Asheville.
Over and over, he, and the other drivers, talk about the incredible field trips they get to attend with students. Bowling with kindergarteners. Exploring caverns in Bristol, TN. Snow Tubing. Roper Mountain Science Center. River tubing followed by an impromptu stop at one of the last swinging bridges in the state. A Brazilian steakhouse for lunch. Randy and the others talk about their adventures at FernLeaf with smiles and wonder and gratitude.
"My granddaughter goes to a private school," Randy says, "and she is always asking me about the field trips FernLeaf kids get to take."
Randy believes that the commitment to field work is one of several things that sets FernLeaf apart. "Kids want to be at school," he observes, recalling how rare it is to have an issue with a student not wanting to get on the bus. Rick and Vada, remembering their days driving at local district schools, agree that the culture of FernLeaf is different. They note a sense of lower stress in students and theorize that the school's commitment to time outside - both on field work and on campus - contributes to it.
The school's culture of respect, where students are seen and supported exactly as and where they are, must also be part of the formula. That respect begins the moment a student steps up to Randy's bus door.
Pulling into an Ingles parking lot on the west side of Asheville promptly at 6:50, Randy is on time to welcome passengers on board. He knows his second stop will be busier, but he waits the scheduled 10 minutes, greeting four students as they climb the stairs, recalling details and making connections.
"Hi Randy," one says. "Hi, Declan," Randy replies, looking directly at a kindergartener bent double with backpack weight. "It looks like you're using two book bags again," Randy notes with a grin.
"Oh, I see you're wearing a red hat today," Randy tells another. "For December? No more pumpkin hat?"
Like clockwork, at 7:00, Randy and Doug pull their doors closed and head east on the interstate. The sky is still dark and traffic light as the buses crawl toward their next stop. Randy is confident that his bus wouldn't, or couldn't exceed 52 miles per hour if he tried, but he keeps it under that, in no rush, letting the hustle and flow of commuters pass on the left. Inside, the small group of students are establishing themselves for the ride, creating the same games and rules that have been made on school buses for decades.
"Don't touch the line," one says, pointing at the faded stripe down the aisle.
"Sit like this," another challenges, folding his 6-year-old body in half between the vinyl seat cushion and the back of the seat in front of him.
"That's not appropriate," another says in response to something his classmate said. "This is appropriate," he corrects before demonstrating the arm movements and lyrics for The Macarena.
Randy keeps a watchful eye on it all, glancing into his overhead mirror. When needed, and without fanfare, he flips a switch and the cabin lights come on. "Stay seated, guys," he says clearly and calmly, before returning the bus to dark.
At 7:15, the FernLeaf parade pulls into another Ingles lot, this time in South Asheville. The sky is brightening, morning fully coming on. Families and students are waiting, and many are excited to see Randy back behind the wheel. Parents offer good mornings and offer well wishes, missing him as much as the students, as their kids make their way up the stairs. Many pause at Randy's seat to say hello, offering and receiving fist bumps, asking where he was or sharing a story. To each, Randy gives his full and complete attention, never rushing any, and, somehow, he stays on schedule. Some parents wait outside, waving at students who are tall enough to just see over the edge of the window frame. Ten minutes, it's time to go.
Traffic is heavier now, making their way south on Hendersonville Road. With 29 new passengers on board, the energy in Randy's bus is higher, but still calm, collected. A crew of fourth graders sits in the back, their heads together, giggles making it to the front of the bus at times. Students sit alone in other places, sketching or reading. As a result of FernLeaf's no cell phone approach, absent is the glow of screens and mindless scrolling through social media. Instead, students are connecting.
Conversations float through the bus like clouds as students lean on each other to make sense of things in their lives.
"Pets run away when they need to die."
"How many days until Christmas? Eight? My friend told me it was eight." It's definitely more than eight.
"I love Outdoor Ed with Ryan."
Near the front, a kindergartener and a fourth grader sharing a seat are confused when asked if they are related. Their ease and friendship suggests familiarity beyond their shared bus route.
That ease and respect pervades the bus. Granted, it's a bus of elementary students, but Doug Dunlap, with his Wilderness Campus students, states that it's common on his route as well.
"Eighty- to ninety-percent of my students talk to me," Doug says with a degree of astonishment in his voice, "they tell me to have a great day."
The five minutes scheduled at the last stop, a church in Arden, is enough time for four more passengers to board.
Universally, the bus drivers sing the praises of the school's consolidated pickup locations. "Stopping at three places is way easier than stopping at 60," Vada says. The approach also makes it possible for families who live further away to still attend FernLeaf.
At 7:40, Randy pulls out and heads to the barn, so to speak. By 7:50, after a painstaking wait in the notorious Howard Gap turn lane, he pulls into the Creek Campus. Like passengers on an airline, the students stand in unison when the bus comes to a complete stop. Unlike airline passengers, however, they wait patiently. The way out takes as long as it will take, which may take some time. There are tooth fairy stories to tell Randy, after all, and goodbyes to say, and "Have a good day" wishes to give him.
Eventually, and in time, the students make their way to their classes. Randy stays in his seat for a moment, sipping on coffee before bleeding the brakes on the bus. Randy knows he'll be back here shortly, letting the engine warm up and preparing for the afternoon run to take his kids home. He can't wait.
Want to learn more about what it's like to work at FernLeaf? Check out this video straight from the mouths of our staff, and check out our current job openings while you're there. We can't wait to meet you!