Cover story: Driving to success

Becoming a school bus driver set Cor’Darius Jones, now the “Mr. Bus Driver” of social media fame, on a remarkably rewarding path

Cor'Darius Jones was named Stellar Employee of the Year
Escambia ESP member Cor'Darius Jones was named "Stellar Employee" not only of the month for his district, but of the year.

April 2018 found Cor’Darius Jones at a low point. The Pensacola man’s grandmother had passed away unexpectedly in March, and the sadness stuck with him like a shadow.

One Monday that April, he got in his car, turned on some music and went driving to clear his head. He passed a roadside sign advertising for bus drivers. “I didn’t think anything of it,” he recalls.

Cor’Darius was between jobs but not yet actively looking so soon after his grandmother’s funeral.

Then he passed another sign, same advertisement. “I kind of just smirked at myself and said, if I see this sign one more time, I’m going to take it as a sign.” A few minutes later, there it was again. On Tuesday, he applied for a job as a bus driver with the Escambia County School District.

Cor'Darius and his billboard
A billboard honoring Cor’Darius stayed up for a month in Pensacola.

Fast forward to April 2022, and the sign catching Cor’Darius’ eye was a billboard featuring his own smiling face.

The driver had been awarded “Stellar Employee of the Month” by the district, the first Escambia transportation employee to ever receive that accolade. The billboard was icing on the cake, a special recognition from Escambia Superintendent Tim Smith. In May, Cor’Darius would be named “Stellar Employee of the Year” after helping rescue a woman struck and injured by a car.

At just 30 years of age, Cor’Darius is an honored employee and a member of the Union of Escambia Education Staff Professionals, a new father and a social media star widely known for his funny, imaginative videos about the bus-driving life. On Facebook, “Mr Bus Driver” has 19,000 followers. On TikTok, nearly 31,000 people are tuned in to “mrbusdrivercj.” In the local community, he has been featured on TV and in the Pensacola News Journal newspaper.

Cor’Darius is loving life, and it’s fair to say life is loving him. For that, he is profoundly grateful.

“I’m usually not the one to say, oh, I did everything right. You know? But I feel like it’s all been in God’s hands. I felt like whenever he took my grandmother, he blessed me 10 times over. It’s kind of like, it was his way of telling me, you don’t know what I have in store for you. And I honestly wouldn’t change anything.”

‘77 kids on a bus’

 That’s not to say that Cor’Darius did not have doubts when he began working as a substitute school bus driver in April 2018. After training, he recalled recently, “I took over a route that another driver was driving, and I remember thinking to myself, what did I get myself into? All of these kids behind me. I said, I cannot do this. What if they don’t take me seriously?”

Once he was driving the route, it was the students who eased his mind. “I had some smaller kids ask me, ‘Are you going to be our new driver? We like you.’ … And I got hugs. I got smiles. ‘Good morning.’ ‘Hey.’ ‘You’re so nice.’ I knew then and there, that was the place I needed to be. When my grandmother passed, I didn’t want anyone around me. I just wanted to kind of be to myself. I felt like that was the best place for me, not knowing I needed company. I needed to be around people, not knowing it was going to be 77 kids on a bus.”

Cor’Darius would become the kind of driver who greets each child by name. His bus is decorated inside, walls and ceiling dotted with cut-out characters, including those from the Mario video game series and Dr. Seuss, and inspiring quotations. He’s the kind of driver who, although eating is not allowed on his bus, has designated a special seat where any child he believes is hungry is allowed to sit and eat breakfast.

By August 2018, he was driving full time for the district. About a year later, the whole world would start to get acquainted with “Mr. Bus Driver.”

The fateful Popsicle

In August 2019, Cor’Darius was on social media in the same way as many American adults — he had a personal account on Facebook and connected with a circle of friends and family. That would change when he did a dry run of his bus route for the 2019-2020 school year. He had pulled over in a neighborhood to sit and check paperwork when he noticed kids looking his way — some of the students whom he would likely be driving. One child stuck out a tongue, there were rude hand gestures, and a kid threw an orange Popsicle as Cor’Darius drove away.

Cor'Darius puts his hand over his face after some kids were rude toward his bus
This is the photo that launched a social media star. After encountering some kids who were less than enthusiastic to see his bus during a test run in August 2019, Cor’Darius took a quick selfie with his hand over his face and posted on Facebook about the incident. Words of support and encouragement poured in along with hundreds of likes.

A bit down the road, he stopped the bus again, took a quick selfie with his hand over his face in a classic “face-palm” and posted on Facebook about the incident, writing in part: “Ugh! I can already tell it’s going to be a ‘fun’ school year. … Is it too late to quit now?  Pray for me everyone … PLEASE!”

Where Cor’Darius’ social media posts might normally generate 10 or 20 likes, this post quickly earned more than 500. There were words of support along with requests for a follow-up after the school year got rolling. It dawned on Cor’Darius that he didn’t want to write some long text update, but he might have fun with a video. The rest is Mr. Bus Driver history.

Cor’Darius and his fiancée, fellow bus driver Sherria Johnson, now make up the two-person production team creating videos starring mostly him for Facebook and TikTok. The man who was once camera-shy often plays two roles, bus driver and student, to hilarious result. There are sound and special effects. Titles include “Imagine if we could be everywhere at once!!!,”  “BREAKING NEWS: Lost gum found,” “What it’s really like training to be a bus driver,” and “How bus drivers be on the last day of school.”

The videos have been seen by millions. The most views, 2.9 million, go to a TikTok video titled “Who closes the door when the bus driver gets off?”

Keeping it real

Who’s watching? Cor’Darius says his audience on Facebook breaks down as about 60 percent people who work in transportation, 30 percent parents and the general public, and maybe 10 percent students. He’s on TikTok due to requests from students, and estimates that they make up about 75 percent of the audience following “mrbusdrivercj,”with the remainder split between parents and fellow drivers. As a school district employee, he is careful to follow social media guidelines and avoid direct interaction with students on social media. They are more than welcome to watch, but no direct messages, please.

Cor’Darius says tech comes easy to him, and editing a video only takes a few minutes. The filming is plain fun for him and Sherria, with lots of laughs between and sometimes during takes.

What ultimately gives the videos traction with viewers, he believes, is authenticity.

“A lot of feedback I get is, it’s real. Every video, it either happened to me or I heard it happened to someone else, but it happens every single day on somebody’s route. I don’t think I’ve made a video to this day that I just made up, from the air. Everything is so real. That’s why a lot of people connect to it, especially bus drivers, bus assistants, because they know this is the stuff we deal with every single day. And it’s just funny to see it being acted out because it’s so accurate.”

The unfunny parts

With any job, “real” isn’t always funny. In Escambia County as elsewhere, the bus driver shortage has made the job tougher for the people who are working. Because there are not enough drivers, Cor’Darius says that this school year he will be running four routes each morning and four routes each afternoon, instead of three, to get elementary, middle and high school students where they need to be. That can mean working 9.5 to 10 hours per day.

Due to Escambia bus drivers uniting to take action, those hours will at least be better paid than in the past. Pay was less than $13 an hour in early 2021 when Cor’Darius and other drivers began attending school board meetings to call for wages more in line with the difficulty and responsibility of the job.

When the dust settled in August 2021, the school district and the Union of Escambia Education Staff Professionals had hammered out an across-the-board raise for all education staff professionals and a starting pay for bus operators of $14.72 per hour, with training opportunities to earn more than $15. Due to legislative action, education staff professionals statewide are set to hit the $15 mark for minimum pay in the 2022-2023 school year.

Cordarius and transportation crew
Cor'Darius celebrates his award in spring 2022 with the Escambia transportation crew and guests.

Back to school

This fall, Mr. Bus Driver is back to school. The inside of his bus, which Superintendent Smith has praised as looking “like a classroom,” will be newly redecorated with a safari theme featuring fun facts about the jungle and animals. There will be two quotes from Dr. Seuss:

  • “Today you are YOU, that is truer than true. There is NO ONE alive that is YOUER than YOU.”
  • “The more that you READ, the more things you will KNOW. The more that you LEARN, the more places you’ll GO.”

As for where Cor’Darius will go, he says that long term he would like to move into a career in law enforcement, perhaps with the local Sheriff’s Office. Right now, he’s focused on his students.

“First starting this job, I saw myself as just a bus driver. Just take them to and from school. That was it. I never realized the impact I would make on these students by giving them a smile in the morning, giving them a hug, giving them treats in the afternoon. It is definitely the students that keep me going.”

And wherever he goes, count that Cor’Darius Jones will be doing his best.

“I just feel,” he says, “like every day I have to accomplish something more” than he accomplished the day before.

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