Part Two: New to Headship

by Michael Norton

Michael Norton has recently started his role as Head of Secondary at Collegiate International School, which is part of the Innoventures Education group of schools in the UAE. He has worked at IB-Continuum schools for over seven years, previously working as a Teaching & Learning Coordinator. Originally from Canada, he has experience as a Head of English and Assistant Headteacher in both England and the UAE. Michael has a passion for learning and leadership, holding a Masters in Educational Leadership and currently completing the NPQH qualification through University College London. Michael also facilitates the NPQSL qualifications within the Innoventures group of schools in Dubai.

This series has been produced as a way to support the transition of international school leaders who are ‘New to Headship’. Much of the series will be reflective in nature, drawing upon relevant research and best practice to support Michael’s narrative. 

PART TWO: The First Two Weeks (A Goal-Setting Experience)

The first day disappears. The first week is a gas station on a lonely highway – you are conscious of it, but you’re on cruise control and it doesn’t make sense to slow down.

I am now entering into the third week of my role as Head of Secondary and it is a perfect time to pause and reflect on the time that has passed. I have recruited two new teachers (welcome to the team, Rohit and Muhammad!) and created a guide for the upcoming report cards. I have met numerous parents and made appearances in three assemblies. I have answered questions about where I’m from, how old I am, and when I lost my hair. I have challenged misbehaviour and encouraged students to step up as leaders. 

As I reflect, I realize one thing: none of these tasks appeared on a ‘to-do list’!

Creating a to-do list is about prioritizing key elements for the day or week ahead. This is a seemingly difficult task when you are new to a role and cannot accurately predict the day or week ahead! Nonetheless, it is important to be mindful of the needs of the community you now serve – staff, students, and parents – and to set appropriate goals. The graphic below was shared by Justin Wright on LinkedIn and contains many different approaches to setting priorities and managing your workload. As I look to the weeks ahead and gain more clarity about my role, I thought it would be useful to break down each approach in an educational context. I’ll then conclude with my preferred method of goal-setting and hope to hear back from other school leaders about their go-to to-do list approach!

The Eisenhower Matrix

I am drawn to the duality between ‘Do It’ and ‘Delegate It’. This is especially relevant for modern international school leaders who often have large distributed teams with specific responsibilities and job descriptions. It is unlikely that you will get the best out of your team without strategic delegation. Although this model seems useful for a senior leader, I don’t believe that a NEW senior leader would be able to ‘Delete’ a priority and take it off the list – we simply don’t have enough context to rule anything out! A priority might seem unimportant, but it’s important to investigate context and understand why it appeared to be a ‘job to be done’ in the first place!

The Ivy League Method

This is a method that I used on the first day in the role (before it slipped away). I find this approach to be most useful for the end of each day. I clear my desk, centre my notepad, and refresh my to-do list. I don’t think this list will ever consist of just 6 items, but it is an effective exercise to list the tasks for the next day in order of priority. What complicates the Ivy League Method is the student who wants to discuss university pathways at 7.45 am, or the parent who needs to speak urgently about a potential bullying issue in their child’s class. These things must take priority, even though they are unlikely to feature on a to-do list! I suppose that the best feature of this method is number 5: “At day’s end, move left-over tasks to the next day”.

The MoSCoW Method

As I sit and reflect, I realize that we employed this method twice in the last two weeks. The Deputy Head of Pastoral Care has recently secured a team of phase leaders to support his vision for pastoral care and wellbeing. We have been setting aside regular time to strategize his approach and, without knowing, we modelled the MoSCoW Method (well done to us!). We first identified the elements that are critical to success: a flow chart of support and interventions for student misbehaviour, a clear delineation of consequences for recidivism, and a plan for disseminating this to all staff. We then looked at the medium-term elements that we ‘should have’: a group of prefects to support the Head Boy and Head Girl in wellbeing initiatives, a strong student council to represent their peers in the development of school priorities, and a clear homeroom curriculum to meet the KHDA’s enhanced focus on wellbeing. All of these are important to put in place, but not part of the ‘first steps of success’.

Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints

A new hire is always seeing things from a fresh perspective and is able to ask questions about rationale or systems. A new hire in a senior role is even better placed to not only ask questions but to make suggestions for enhancements. This matches nicely with the concept of a ‘Bottleneck’. At times, this bottleneck will need to be removed so that a new system can take its place; however, it is always important to honour context and allow suggestions or questions to be a source of optimization. By asking questions in a judgement-free environment, potential issues can be rectified and the work of staff can be optimized. Leadership is about getting the best out of your staff and allowing them to thrive – the answer is always in the room! New leaders should be especially conscious of this as they seek to understand team dynamics.

What has not been said in this reflection is that a new senior leader needs the support of a mentor or coach, often in the form of a Headteacher (or an advisory council in the case of a new Headteacher). This support is essential to help understand what can be deleted in Eisenhower’s Matrix, what the won’t-haves are in the MoSCoW method, and what should be avoided at all costs in Warren Buffett’s method. My Head of School has been invaluable to this end and I learn more about the school each day. As I look to the weeks ahead, I am going to push forward with the Ivy League method – even if the list completely changes at the end of each day.

To connect with Michael on LinkedIn, click Here

To read Michael’s first article – PART ONE: The Handover (A Coaching Experience), go to:

If you are considering becoming an International School Principal, then why not sign up for our course in January – ‘Becoming an International School Principal’.

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