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Feedback – alternatives to traditional teacher observation

A less formal, whole-team approach to observation works much better than stressful monitoring, says Ben Levinson…

  • Feedback – alternatives to traditional teacher observation

Throughout lockdown at Kensington Primary School, we’ve dealt with various challenges that are no doubt familiar to most schools – teacher workload, wellbeing, and remote teaching being some of the biggest (as reflected in new research by Pearson). And we’ve found that while we can’t control external factors, having a supportive and trusting culture in school is key to getting over hurdles together.

Some of the key principles we’ve used to help foster this culture are: 

Humans are fundamentally good

All people are born with the capacity for growth and development. Of course, the balance between nature and nurture is complex, but with the right support, everyone can play a positive role in society.

And this is no different for our Kensington team. Absolutely everyone here wants to do their very best. Sometimes they miss the mark because they’re tired, or stressed, or anxious, or overwhelmed, etc, but my job as a headteacher is to help them maximise their potential. 

Mad isn’t always bad

As humans, we all experience the full gamut of emotions. And that is totally OK – it’s an important part of what makes us, us. Added to that are the myriad factors that influence our emotions – personally, hunger affects me in an extreme way!

At Kensington, we endeavour to be aware of all this. So, when a team member reacts in an unusual way – for example, if they’re angry or distressed – we try to step back from the specific reaction, identify the emotion for what it is (or what it’s caused by) and then provide the appropriate support and guidance.

Often, a bit of time to breathe and reflect is enough. When it isn’t, work together to find solutions. All of this creates a more positive, calm environment, where issues are less likely to escalate. 

Intrinsic motivation

This supportive route has opened up lots of very interesting conversations at Kensington. We abandoned formal observations a long time ago.

But after realising that the monitoring systems we used not only didn’t improve the quality of teaching and learning, but, arguably, detracted from it, we also decided to get rid of the formal monitoring we had in place.

Instead, we’ve developed a system where we work together, providing a supportive, reflective environment with a ‘we’re all in this together’ vibe, creating the best possible learning experiences for our children.

We’ve embraced more collaboration, more conversation, and less direction and control. Rather than ‘checking up’ and ‘feeding back’, we spend time together in lessons, looking at the learning and then discussing what we saw.

Which children were finding it hard and why? Who could have done with more challenge? Did that way of modelling work? Why? Why not? It’s a small tweak but it works.

The quality of teaching and learning is better than ever, as evidenced by a wide range of metrics – from speaking to children and staff, to awards, visitor feedback, and our own reflections of what goes on in the classroom.

We have also overhauled our performance management systems to give staff control over their own development, rather than setting punitive targets.

Everyone now identifies areas they want to develop, and then works towards their goals in their own way, supported by the team.

Some have chosen to improve their knowledge of phonics teaching, others want to improve their use of assessment for learning, and others want to develop skills in having those challenging conversations with colleagues. Whatever it is, it’s driven by individuals for their own development.

Good to talk

So much of what we’ve done is based on trust, which comes from open and honest communication. We support a variety of mechanisms for people to communicate at school, including our Kensington Matters focus groups, team meetings, and staff surveys. But most important are the relationships we’ve fostered together. 

Ultimately, all this means everyone has a voice, and ensures that what we’re building is truly based on the team. Everyone has a clarity of purpose and the knowledge that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

It has been a testing 16 months, but we’ve managed to build resilience to deal with the challenges through support and understanding. Now, we’re emerging stronger, more united, and more able to provide the best possible education to our pupils. 


Ben Levinson OBE is headteacher at Kensington Primary School. He is a founding member of the Well Schools movement, part of the Department for Education’s expert advisory group on school staff wellbeing, and a TeachActive ambassador. Follow Ben on Twitter at @mrlev.

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