Skip to main content

Wizard of Oz

Eager to share a no-nonsense approach to behaviour management, UK teachers are lapping up down-to-earth advice from Down Under. David Newnham reports

Four characters are going hammer and tongs at the front of the school hall, and all of them are played by a tall Australian whose unbuttoned shirtsleeves flap as he switches roles.

To begin with, there's an angry parent, who won't sit down and won't stop shouting about some perceived injustice meted out to her son. On the receiving end of her tirade is an increasingly angry teacher. Suddenly, the teacher explodes. Raising his fists as well as his voice, he pursues the mother across the room. "You get out of my office," he shouts. "Don't you ever speak to me like that. I am a very senior teacher. I walk in this funny way and have creases in my trousers and... and..." The third character cuts in. "Perhaps that's what you'd like to say - in your dreams," he tells the audience. "But, of course, you don't. Actually, when you're talking with angry people, it's better to say as little as possible and let them run out of steam." When the woman resumes her verbal assault, it is the Australian's fourth character - the self-assured professional - who calmly takes control.

If this one-man show were mere theatre, the audience of 200 teachers could simply sit and laugh. For the voices, the postures and, above all, the depiction of a jaded practitioner at the end of his tether, are hilariously familiar. But this is a training session, and the man at the front of the hall at Arbury primary school in Cambridge is what one head later describes as "that rare thing - a trainer who has never lost the ability to show you that he remembers what it's like to be on duty in a difficult playground situation".

Which is why, between every outbreak of hilarity, the audience can be seen scribbling notes on A4 pads. There's no real need to take notes, of course. For in the decade and a half he has been teaching other teachers, Bill Rogers has produced a shelf-load of books and videos on behaviour management and school discipline. They describe a battery of strategies and techniques such as "partial agreement" and "tactical ignoring", all woven into a fabric of classroom agreements and personal discipline plans and rooted in a philosophy of mutual respect and shared responsibility.

His most recent work, Classroom Behaviour: a practical guide to effective behaviour management and colleague support, is described by Birmingham's chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, as "a must for every department" (TES, April 19), and many of the teachers who have come here from all over Cambridge (such is Mr Rogers's reputation that several schools have clubbed together to stage the event) will go home with a copy. But there's no substitute for the magic of live performance, and that's what the audience here is getting.

"Fellas, fellas, you're bonding. Playtime's over." Mr Rogers, who at 55 boasts that he has never been a principal or even a deputy ("just a senior teacher") is now demonstrating how he calms a class in the school corridor at the end of breaktime, preparing them for that all-important transition from playground to classroom. "Jeeze, we're only mucking about," one of the boys parrots (again, Mr Rogers is doing all the voices). "Playtime's over," Rogers-the-teacher repeats. "We're about to enter a learning community."

As a visual learner himself, he draws cartoons when working as a teacher mentor (he fits classroom sessions around his lecture schedule) and uses them as field notes. Now, as he describes the situation in the corridor, he squints into an overhead projector to add dabs and flourishes, Rolf Harris-fashion, to a sketch of the scene. "These are the two boys," he says, "and you can see they're engaged in a little testosteronic rear-end work. But you keep your intervention least intrusive, only moving to more intrusive as is really necessary."

By this stage, the cartoon, already a high-energy affair depicting some 20 teenagers together with a self-portrait of the artist as a tired teacher, has begun to acquire an outgrowth of initials. As he says the words "least intrusive", Mr Rogers adds the letters "l.i." to the acetate, followed by "m.i." for "more intrusive" and "a.i.r.n." for "as is really necessary".

This routine quickly becomes familiar. "Now this lad," says Mr Rogers, adjusting the focus on another classroom scene, "he was playing with a pencil sharpener in the shape of a biplane. But you don't ask him why he's playing with a biplane. You don't give a flying ferret why he's doing it. Instead, you describe obvious reality. 'You're playing with a biplane, Nathan. It's distracting.' You're not telling him off, just getting him to take some short-term ownership of his behaviour." Repeating the phrase "describe obvious reality", he writes the initials "d.o.r." at the top of the acetate. And then he does something unexpected.

As his marker flits here and there over the cartoon classroom, it suddenly lights on his depiction of the whiteboard. "This, by the way, was a geography class, and what you see there is my timeline of Aboriginal pre-history. I'm not a geography teacher - in fact, I teach English. But English teachers can teach anything (pause for laughter) and it was rather a good timeline, going back 40,000 years before the arrival of Captain Cook."

With that, he launches into an extraordinary walkabout through space and time that not only takes his audience to the heart of his adopted homeland, but demonstrates his ability to hold a class in rapt attention. "Four prisoners would be shackled in the space of a double bed for the six-month journey by sea. One woman was sentenced to seven years in exile for stealing six kilograms of cheese - admittedly, that's quite a large chunk of cheese - but when we went out there, my mother and us kids, we had to pay."

It was 1963 when Bill Rogers and his family boarded an old Italian boat and set sail from England for a new life in Australia. They were happy to be leaving. When he was seven, his family had moved from Harlesden in north-west London to a council estate in Hemel Hempstead. His father worked in a factory and his mother in Boots. Having failed the 11-plus - "We didn't even know what we were doing, we were just shovelled into a hall and given this examination" - he had been sent to the local secondary modern.

He had an inspirational art teacher, Mrs Hunt, who enrolled him in a national art competition (he still treasures the certificate), and "a wonderful English teacher called Mr Randall", who encouraged him to write. But with adolescence came rejection of the heavy-handed, arbitrary and inappropriate school discipline often meted out by staff.

It's not difficult to imagine that his ideas of the teacher as a leader who is respected and respecting, and who strives, above all, "to arrange situations in which kids are more likely to co-operate", were forged in that dead-end secondary modern.

One incident in particular has remained with him. While his audience breaks for lunch and swaps notes about the man who, in the words of Tim Brighouse, has "that uncanny and very rare knack of throwing a sharp focus on everyday classroom instances which all of us intuitively knew all along", Mr Rogers sits in the head's office and recalls the anger and humiliation of his own teenage years. "I remember one teacher when I was 15. I'd been talking in class, or something dangerously rebellious like that. He started poking his finger into my shoulder, and said, 'Were you brought up or dragged up?' I said, 'That's none of your bloody business', and stood up and walked out of the classroom. There was silence. I suppose he realised he'd gone too far. He was poking me really hard, and I was nearly crying because I knew what 'dragged up' meant. I wasn't silly, just because I was working-class."

His mother wept when they found themselves living in a Nissen hut at a migrants' hostel in Queensland, but for the boys it was paradise. Bill Rogers got himself a job, "working with hard, tough Australian men way out in the bush, hammering in fence posts and scaring away black snakes with a long-handled shovel".

After a spell doing building and carpentry work, he found his way to night school "and did everything, from physics to design drawing". He took the equivalent of A-levels and got a job as an architectural draughtsman. "I'd always wanted to complete my education," he says. "I knew there was more in me and that I could do well given the chance." But, in truth, his education had barely begun.

It was after a spell of national service (although Australia was sending troops to "that stupid war" in Vietnam, Mr Rogers escaped with gun-cleaning duties closer to home) that he got to know an Anglican minister who worked in a "frontier parish" in a tough, inner-city district of Melbourne. Mr Rogers was (and is) a churchgoer, and when the minister invited him to help out, he agreed to give it a try.

"I believed it was right for me at the time," he says. "While I was there, I thought I might as well do some training." He studied part-time for a theology degree, and when the other minister left, took over the job - but not before he had picked up some tips from his predecessor on using cartoons and an overhead projector to liven up Sunday sermons.

He was to remain in the parish for a further seven years, taking on additional work in marriage guidance and as a prison and hospital chaplain. "It was tough. I was young, naive and excited. I was ordained on the run, and at the age of 25 I was burying people. I had a massive growth spurt. The first couple I married, he was a truck driver with seven kids. He said, 'Nobody will marry me. Will you?' So Lora, my wife, made the house look nice, and we married them in our lounge."

It was only when Lora lost her second baby at full-term that Bill Rogers decided to become a teacher. "We were bushed. I went into teaching, intending to go back into the ministry after a few years. But I've just kept cruising in this profession, which I really enjoy."

In fact, "cruising" is slightly misleading, for the Australian government's decision in 1983 to abolish corporal punishment was to trigger a further change of direction for Mr Rogers. With caning outlawed, there was a demand for fresh disciplinary procedures, and the government was looking for talented people with good classroom skills who could advise schools on how to put them into practice. "I asked my principal if he thought I could do it, and he said, 'You could walk it.' So I took leave without pay, thinking I would go back. But I liked working with teachers in this new role so much that I stayed on for several years. Then I thought I might go private, and have been a private consultant for 10 years."

In 1988, Bill Rogers won a government scholarship to visit England and examine issues of discipline and teacher stress. While he was here, he was invited to give evidence to the Elton Committee on school discipline, and since then he has returned once or twice a year, spending the time mentoring at schools ("You tend to get the most difficult classes") and giving talks to congregations of teachers around Britain. This time, he is packing in three or four lectures a week until January 2003, many of them sold out.

Lora, also a teacher, has come with him, while their 14-year-old daughter, Sarah, has a temporary place at a London comprehensive. Meanwhile, Elizabeth, their eldest, teaches in Sydney. Bill Rogers, who is "missing her after only two weeks", contents himself with slipping a picture of her and her class into the overhead projector so their eyes can briefly meet across a crowded room.

A showman? A guru? A Billy Graham of education (he is clearly appalled by this last comparison)? "I hate all that," he says. "I'm just a reflective practitioner passing on thoughts and observations to colleagues."

But no amount of modesty can obscure the fact that his particular thoughts and observations, together with his singular ability to pass them on, have given Bill Rogers an almost cult-like following among teachers in both hemispheres.

To be kept informed about Bill Rogers's tour dates, email joyce.lynch@sagepub.co.uk

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you