Before landing the bus-driving job, he spent a year as a truck driver. But with the Palo Alto district, he would be taking kids to school and working alongside people who had driven him around only a few years prior when he was a student.
Those three years turned into 31, and Zabaldo, now 53, officially retired this month from his position as bus-driver trainer, a management job that encompassed several responsibilities.
"It's morphed into supervisor, driver, dispatcher, secretary, manager, babysitter. ... It really involves everything," he said.
A few years after he started working as a driver, his then-supervisor encouraged him to become a certified instructor. In 1990, he passed the tests to become a state delegate instructor and began teaching other drivers. He initially worked alongside two other supervisors to teach about 15 drivers. However, as the years passed, the number of drivers increased and the other supervisors moved away or retired. Soon only Zabaldo was left, going from one-on-one lessons to teaching groups of nearly 20 drivers at a time.
Even as Zabaldo's responsibilities expanded, one focus remained a constant for him: figuring out how to connect with his students, both young and old.
"That's part of the passion that's not in the manual of my teaching," he said. "Slowly over the years it becomes a life lesson."
As a bus driver, he utilized the time he spent with the kids to coach them by giving them trivia questions, helping them learn their addresses or gently disciplining unruly kids.
Zabaldo has only written one citation for a student's bad behavior in all 31 years he's worked as a bus driver, preferring instead to mentor the troublemakers he encountered. One tactic he used was giving kids a job, like taking attendance, to divert their attention.
"They start learning and they start looking, and they've forgotten what they've done wrong," he said.
The ability to get down to a kid's level and communicate with them has been one of the keys to Zabaldo's success, he said. It allowed him to develop a rapport with the kids he drove, based on mutual understanding and respect.
"Believe it or not, I have no kids myself. And when people say, 'You don't have any kids,' I say, 'Well, yeah, I do. I have thousands of kids.' Every child that I transported becomes one of my kids, and that's how you gain their respect over the years."
Zabaldo's work has left a distinct impact on the community, from the hundreds of drivers he's trained to the kids he's driven safely to school to the co-workers he describes as an extended family.
"There's this legacy that comes with the name Derek Zabaldo, like the Peninsula has known that this instructor has been here from day one," said Transportation Supervisor Kelly Hubbard, who has worked with Zabaldo for a year and a half. "We were talking about the number of current drivers that we have. Out of the 23, 19 or 20 of them he trained. That's the whole department."
"The level of respect for the work and the imprint that he's left on the industry in general is impressive," Hubbard said.
Although Zabaldo has enjoyed his unexpected career with the district, health issues and the opportunity to pursue other passions have convinced him that it's time to leave.
"It's not that I don't like my job anymore. I love my job," Zabaldo said. "I'm not stopping what I do; I'm going to do more mentoring outside of retiring from here."
In addition to mentoring, he's planning to pursue his passion of cooking by starting a catering business with his wife.
"I'll come by here if they want me to do a class or something," he said. "Is two hours of your life worth two hundred bucks, or is it worth giving someone some inspiration?"
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