James Ojeda is a hard driver. Always on the go. In between bus routes, Ojeda can be found having lunch with a group of students, helping out teachers in their classrooms, or spending time with one of the fellow bus drivers he ...
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James Ojeda is a hard driver. Always on the go. In between bus routes, Ojeda can be found having lunch with a group of students, helping out teachers in their classrooms, or spending time with one of the fellow bus drivers he mentors.
After school, you might find him at a Clayton County Council Parent-Teacher Association meeting, where he serves as vice president and membership chair. On any given weekend, he might be travelling across Georgia conducting workshops on diversity or social justice, or as committee chair for Education Support Professionals (ESPs) of the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE). Nationally, he serves as an ESP director at large (alternate) for the National Education Association (NEA).
After 13 years of driving a bus for Clayton County Public Schools in Jonesboro, Ojeda has left a broad mark on education. He is tireless, reliable, and uncomplaining. In October, his efforts were formally acknowledged by county commissioners when they awarded him a proclamation for his service to public school education.
“I was totally surprised by the award,” says Ojeda, who drives for North Clayton High and Middle Schools, and West Clayton Elementary School. “I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the impact we as public school employees have on the education process.”
For Ojeda, that impact doesn’t always come from the podium during one of his popular presentations or from news coverage after an interview with a reporter. It sometimes emanates from casual conversations he has with students at school.
“When I have lunch with students, we talk about whatever is on their minds,” says Ojeda, whose two children are graduates of Clayton County public schools. “We can talk about the lunch itself, what they have done in school so far that day, what their plans are after school or over the weekend. Whatever is comfortable for them.”
Students get so comfortable with Ojeda that many often show him their report cards.
“I actually check report cards,” he says. “I commend them, and then we discuss the areas that need improvement and strategies needed to get their grades up. They love it! They run on the bus handing me their report cards.”
Even image-conscious high school seniors are not shy about thrusting their report cards on Ojeda during rides home.
“I meet monthly with the seniors on my bus to see how they are doing with their grades as well as to share with them scholarship opportunities I’ve researched,” he says. “I asked to see two students’ report cards at first and was amazed when at least 15 other high school students brought me their report cards to look at.”
Whether at school or the bus yard, Ojeda’s pace is unrestrained. He never gets tired of helping others. For example, last year, a new driver was assigned to a middle school route that Ojeda had covered for about a month before she was hired. That route had a bad reputation for running off drivers.
“I was asked by my supervisor to work with her,” he says. “I shared with her some bus management tips, such as learning students’ names, contacting parents, building a relationship with administrators, and establishing rules on the bus immediately.”
Ojeda doesn’t only talk the talk. He took the time to ride the bus with the new driver, meet with her administrators, and contact parents on her route to show her how best to interact with them.
“It was so rough for a while, she was offered an easier route but declined it and hung in there and started her second year this August like a pro,” he says. “Now, my goal is to get her to join the Association.”
This year, Ojeda found himself assisting a bus driver he had helped last year.
“He too was having bus management issues, especially with his elementary loads,” Ojeda explains. “The principal and parents were on his case about student behavior. He feared losing his job and was thinking of quitting. Two veteran drivers and I met with him and shared ideas for getting his bus under control.”
The troubled driver applied their suggestions, Ojeda says, “and added some flavor of his own.” It worked. The driver has prospered to the point where he took a mentoring class to qualify as a student mentor.
On any given morning, the non-stop Ojeda might interact with a colleague going through a rough patch with parents, a union member inquiring about GAE member benefits, or a third grader like the one he now mentors.
“I met this young man a few months ago as he was one of the trouble students on another bus,” Ojeda says. “He was sitting in a “time out” one day and I stopped to talk to him. I assured him of the leadership qualities he possessed and how he could either use them for good or bad. I reminded him that the purpose of school is to get an education in the classroom, not sitting outside the principal’s office.”
Ojeda took the student under his wing. As the days and weeks passed, Ojeda received reports from the principal and teachers about the student’s progress.
“They noticed a big difference in his behavior and attitude after my talks with him,” he says. “I met his mother and she gave her consent for me to assist him as he has no male role models in his life.”
The third grader will be Ojeda’s mentee for the remainder of the school year. Just as he got one young student on track, Ojeda later encountered a male fifth grader on his bus who was bullying a female student.
“I brought to his attention the impolite way he was talking to her,” Ojeda says. “I let him know how it made her feel, and how his behavior could be defined as verbal harassment and bullying.”
After the talk, Ojeda contacted the boy’s parents, principal, and the district’s transportation department supervisor. The student is now receiving the proper guidance he needs. Because of his unrelenting dedication to helping students succeed, Ojeda is sometimes consulted about students by school officials.
“Many times, a counselor or the principal will contact me when they need additional information on a child knowing that I have had conversations with them,” Ojeda says. “While I respect the student’s privacy, we as adult educators need to work together to help students in every way we can. Sometimes it starts with a simple conversation.”
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