you're reading...
Learning at its Best

What If You Can’t Get the Wrong People Off the Bus?

In Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great,” one of the keys of good-to-great companies is the ability to get the right people on the bus (read: hire the right people), the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.

This is a great strategy for corporate America and requires patience and diligence. In fact, even building principals could implement this strategy (at least to an extent… the school year will still start, ready or not). But what about classroom teachers? Especially in public schools (where I work), we don’t have a say in the matter. We have no way to implement getting the right students in our classes or the wrong ones out. So does that mean this idea is completely irrelevant to educators? Last summer, upon a first-read of the book, that’s what I thought. I figured we were just doomed to mediocrity or being a “good” class or school. It would be easy to point fingers and daydream about what it must be like to teach in “that school” where all the kids are hard workers and the school consistently produces positive results and there doesn’t appear to be anyone attending that school that needs to get off the proverbial bus.

But what if we acknowledged the potential of our students? What if we took our job as educators seriously and recognized that we are actually agents of change. This is not to say it won’t be difficult, but it will be worth it. 

I am of the opinion that the difference between the right person and wrong person is not a question of intelligence, ability, or interest in the topic, but rather a question of character. If this is true, then the difference between a class of 25 “right” students and 5 “wrong” students is not about whether or not they are trouble-makers, learning disabled, or disinterested, but is about our ability to cultivate within them the character needed to make disciplined choices. As I told my students today, the difference between a good student and a great student is the willingness to choose to do what they know is right, even if they don’t want to do it. 

Given this view, the teacher moves away from the role of “purveyor of knowledge” or even “instructor” and more into a role of “learning facilitator.” Collins describes the motivation of managers to focus on “first who, then what.” But when we are mandated to focus on the what (standardized testing, performance-based pay, pop quiz, etc), does this mean the “who” must take a backseat? Or does it mean that the imperative of focusing on the “who,” our students, has never been more important. If you get the right people on the bus, you can drive it anywhere and they will happily go there for you. If you begin working on changing students’ expectations of themselves and creating a learning environment where students can develop their character, I think you will be surprised by the results: students engaged and willing to go where other teachers struggle to take them.

First who, then what. Our students come first. Develop their character and turn them into the type of person who belongs on your bus.

About Greg Garner

I teach 7th and 8th grade technology classes in Tyler, TX as well as conducting professional development activities for teachers and administrators.


11 thoughts on “What If You Can’t Get the Wrong People Off the Bus?

  1. I love the concept that it’s not about the skills, but about the character. So true! You can’t “fix” that kind of an issue — at least not easily.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | August 22, 2011, 9:42 pm
  2. Really enjoyed this as it reminded me of a situation with staff when I was a head teacher. I may well take it up on my blog ‘The H3ead’s Office’. Will give you a link & a shout when it’s done!

    Posted by Julia Skinner | August 23, 2011, 7:06 am
  3. Thank you Greg. Well done. Let’s strive to make all young people welcome on our buses. Once aboard let’s use authentic relationship and engagement to help individuals grow and develop, while we hold space open and nurture healthy, supportive and challenging learning communities. You’re right, it is all about “the who.” – (no Pete Townsend jokes, please.)


    Posted by Paul Freedman | August 23, 2011, 12:15 pm
  4. And is this the right bus for every student? Should students be driving the bus?



    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 30, 2011, 3:06 pm
    • I believe the students should be driving the bus. I presented in my MA thesis what I thought to be a pragmatic approach to bettering students’ academic and later life performance — it was noted to be “earthy, thought-provoking, and a more readable work of PHILOSOPHY than I have read recently” by the school’s Assoc. Dean. I had not thought it was philosophic in the least…The thesis? Improving Scholastic and Subsequent Life Performance Through Parrhesic Instruction in Adolescents’ Civics-Related Curricula.

      I have either been on the right bus for the wrong reasons, or the wrong bus for the right reasons. No matter what, I think I’ll get off at the next stop because its going to get clobbered by the freight train at the next railroad crossing.

      I suggest there is one Truth regarding “the bus” — it’s currently being driven by idiots (i.e., adults who believe their worldview matches the reality of youths’ lives) down a road divided by colorl, culture, class, sex/gender and religion lines. Given what I suppose the average age of the Catalysts to be, this group is likely 20-40 years out of synch with youths, hapless individuals who are force-fed a type of nonsense at school that will surely stunt their growth and impair their inherent abilities to adapt to the messes adults are leaving behind for them to clean up.

      I fear mainstream American culture will carry the day, but still hope that the Catalysts here not only Are different, but can Make a difference as well.

      Posted by Brent Snavely | August 31, 2011, 6:00 pm
      • I have a hard disagreeing with you, after a recent experience with a group of very well meaning educators, parents and leaders turn to name calling and censorship, because some advocated a vastly different way to look at educating children and learning. It was not so much that we disagreed, but they were so easily okay with throwing some off the bus and under the bus, because it served there cause. It was sad, and reminded me how far we have to go to transform education…

        I think you are right that we need student voices, lots of them, invite them to join the Coop. I invited a 10 year old this morning, I hope he joins, and a 14 year old who’s post will be up later this week….but I want the majority of this blog to be student voices, and no age restriction apply including adults with a playful, inventive and open mind.

        I still consider myself a student, I am 30, I am in school…but even after I graduate, not much will change, I will still be eager to imagine, invent and implement new educational futures.

        I have seen often how easy it is for some adults to be burden by their own histories and the long history of education reform. That is why I am still moved by Adora Svitak ted talks, when she tells us to start acting childish and stop being burdened by our history.

        “who’s to say that certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs? Maybe you’ve had grand plans before, but stopped yourself, thinking: That’s impossible or that costs too much or that won’t benefit me. For better or worse, we kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry or that everything were free kind of utopia. How many of you still dream like that and believe in the possibilities? Sometimes a knowledge of history and the past failures of utopian ideals can be a burden because you know that if everything were free, that the food stocks would become depleted, and scarce and lead to chaos. On the other hand, we kids still dream about perfection. And that’s a good thing because in order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first.” -Adora Svitak

        those are my thoughts for today….


        Posted by dloitz | August 31, 2011, 6:25 pm
        • There is nothing more poignant than the joy of learning. Adults that grasp this are in a position to lead well. Unfortunately, far too many adults believe that learning ends at age 18 or 22 (though they would never verbally admit this) and then they end up driving the bus. As long as we as leaders are willing to not only listen but give voice to students and allow them to chart our course, we will find success and progress. Students are not nearly as biased regarding the world around them and far too often, our prejudice about this job, that economy, this politician, or that field of work prevent students from actualizing their true selves.

          Posted by Greg Garner | August 31, 2011, 7:57 pm


  1. Pingback: Where are the Jobs? « BelieveHopeLoveInspire - August 22, 2011

  2. Pingback: What If You Can’t Get the Wrong People Off the Bus? | Cooperative Catalyst | - August 23, 2011

  3. Pingback: "The Bus Journey" › - March 9, 2013

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,096 other subscribers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: