Vehicles for Change
Q&A with Tyler ISD's Jennifer Hines
When you ask Jennifer Hines what makes her proud to be the communications director in Texas’ Tyler ISD, she has a list ready for you. With nearly three years in the district, she has not only weathered an impossibly hard period of time for public education—she has thrived.
Teamwork is central to Hines’ work at Tyler ISD. Her communications team is responsible for weaving together the prevailing story of the district—and this means collaborating with multiple other teams, including human resources. Among her team’s recent successes is their bus driver recruitment drive, which went viral after successfully filling every bus driver position in the large, sprawling district.
Their drive didn’t go viral just because it worked—it was also creatively executed and challenged the narrative about what it means to be a bus driver in the first place. In an era where nearly every district is struggling to fill positions, we sat down with Hines to learn how recruitment and communications are often two sides of the same coin.
How did you get into school communications?
I graduated college as a broadcast journalism major from the University of Texas-Austin. My first job was as a reporter for KTXS in Abilene. I was a typical new reporter—I wanted to be the lead story every night at 10. On my first day, I covered a snowstorm that caused a power outage at a local elementary school. That would be the first of many, many education-related stories for me. I always seemed to gravitate toward them—and toward the teamwork that is a natural part of the job.
One of my best moments was a two-part series about how the new football stadium in Waco was drawing more playoff games and, therefore, more revenue for that district. If Abilene ISD were to add turf to its stadium, it too could see the financial benefits of more playoff games. Our coverage was shared during the board meeting by the committee pushing for a better stadium. The motion passed! The committee gave me a pin with my name on it as a thank you; I still keep it on my desk.
That was the first time I got to see how my reporting—and, by extension, storytelling—could directly impact education in my community. From there, I would continue to cover education stories in Austin, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and Tyler. When an opening came available at Tyler ISD, it was a natural fit. I have three kids in the district and had even emceed their Teacher of the Year banquets. Two and a half years later, I couldn’t be happier.
How does teamwork make your communications department uniquely effective?
My goal is to make sure we are cultivating connections with departments across the district. We have recently restructured our team and now have someone whose job is split between human resources and communications. That person focuses on making sure we’re sharing our culture and jobs on LinkedIn and ensuring our HR team is fully supported for job fairs and other initiatives. We have seen a tremendous increase in the number of applicants since this change, and I think it’s a smart move given how competitive the job market is right now.
Many people think our job is all media releases and detailed campaigns, but my favorite (and I think the most important) part of the job is sharing the fun we have here. Our administration has done an incredible job of making sure our schools are fun places to attend or work. We get to share that!
There are so many tiny little stories happening in every corner of our district. We don’t have to limit our communications to just sharing important details and messages. It means a lot when we show that we are people, too. For example, last year when we had a few snow days, we took part in the fun by sharing pictures of students and staff. We even shared a meme about finding snow clothes in Texas!
How has your communications strategy helped you solve what is, right now, a huge problem for superintendents—recruiting bus drivers?
We knew we wanted to run an effective recruitment campaign for our bus drivers. We wanted it to be memorable, so we knew it had to be unconventional and outside of the box. Because my team had been involved with the hiring campaign from the very beginning, we were able to put our heads together about how to do it in a way that expanded our reach. After lots of Googling, thinking, and talking, we realized our buses were quite literally the vehicles to make this happen.
We came up with cheeky bus slogans, which kicked off the conversation we wanted to have. They included sayings like “Transporting Tyler’s Precious Cargo: Kids,” “We Want You to Drive for the Kids of Tyler,” and “What Can Yellow Do For You?” It was so fun to write these slogans. Of course, many of them didn’t make the cut, but that’s how it goes! My favorite was “Parents Do This for Free; We’ll Pay You!”
Once we came up with the concept and put the slogans on all our buses, it was time to do our media campaign. One of the benefits of being the largest school district in our local TV market is that we got phenomenal coverage. They covered our campaign for months. The story perpetuated far past the initial launch, which was helpful for us since a hiring campaign is never a one-day event.
What was the initial response to your campaign?
Oh, it was so well received! We wanted to capture that sort of water cooler talk. We wanted people who wouldn’t even be interested in the job to notice and talk about it. Once we had the media push, even people who weren’t traditionally in our recruiting markets showed interest. In fact, someone who had just moved from California called us and said, Hey, I’m already a certified bus driver, and I saw your campaign! Tell me more!
Of course, a big part of our success was being able to offer the benefits that could keep people interested. And it worked! We have since filled every bus driver vacancy, which few schools can say right now. It was also fun to do it in a way that leaned into our community. We knew that our bus drivers were here—we just didn’t know how to reach them and help everyone understand how important the job is.
What role did storytelling play in this campaign?
Our goal was not just to be cute—although our slogans were very cute—but also to challenge the narrative of what it means to be a bus driver. We wanted our community to understand that even if they hadn’t considered bus driving before, it could be a great fit for them and a way to give back to the community. A lot of our bus drivers have kids or grandkids in our district. Some are retirees. Others want more flexibility in their jobs. One guy, a retired executive, became a bus driver because he had always enjoyed being around children. Those are the stories we want to tell.
A lot of people don’t realize what being a bus driver entails. You’re not just in charge of transportation—you’re the first and last face a kid sees every day, an integral part of their school experience. In fact, our bus drivers are some of our students’ favorite people. You have an opportunity to create relationships with the children and have a huge impact on their lives. For people who want a job that is both meaningful and flexible, this is the perfect opportunity.
A lot of your campaigns require close collaboration with other departments—what steps does your team take to pull that off?
Working with other departments is part of our emphasis on teamwork. Making sure you have a seat at the table is all about relationships. But you also must be willing to make things happen on your own. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask for a seat at the table or to speak up when you have something to say. Meet with department heads, visit your schools, and talk to teachers and families. Know what is happening and offer your support.
It’s not enough for people just to know you, though. They have to see what you do and how it fits into the broader picture of the district. Once you get your foot in the door and prove yourself valuable to their objectives, you start getting invited to more meetings. People begin to understand how collaborating with you will help them with their own goals.
Making time to establish these connections also helps. We regularly send invites and have sweet treats to entice people out of their offices. People love to talk about what they’re working on, which creates opportunities to build natural collaboration. There’s a lot to be said for small talk, believe it or not.
How do you involve your teachers and staff in communications?
We think hard about harnessing our staff as brand ambassadors. One of the most popular things we’ve done is give them large stickers as part of teacher appreciation. Our administrators do so much to make sure our teachers and staff are proud of working here, and it makes me so happy to see those stickers on water bottles, computers, and even used as bumper stickers on cars all over town. Our community is loud and proud—we just have to make sure we give them creative tools for sharing how proud they are to work here.
In the end, we’re all on the same team. It always makes me proud to show off how close-knit we are as a community. From our bus drivers to our teachers to our superintendent, we all love to rally around the vital work we do for the students of Tyler.
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