Part One: The Handover (A Coaching Experience)

by Michael Norton

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 ONE: The Handover (A Coaching Experience)

As the time to transition out of my role as Deputy Headteacher and into the Head of Secondary role came near, I was asked one morning to develop a ‘Handover Document’ that could be given to my replacement (an external hire from within the country). This request caused some trepidation at first, as it forced me to ask some interesting questions of myself: what is my role? What tasks are worthy of continued development in my absence? What value do I add to the school? I closed my eyes and imagined that I was a ‘fly off the wall’ or a ‘CCTV Camera’ watching my every move over the past year, recording my daily actions. As I began to rewind the clock and answer introspective questions, I realized that I was having a coaching conversation with myself and began a deep dive into coaching in education in a quest to ask the most useful questions of myself.

My internal conversation was focused on learning about my current role as a way to enhance my successor’s ability to achieve their (as of now) untapped potential – an interesting situation that matches well with the definition of coaching put forth by Growth Coaching International: “Coaching is a conversational activity that aims to support people to learn and develop, thereby enhancing their ability to achieve more of their untapped potential” ( 

Those who work closely with me will know that I am a conceptual thinker and I am drawn towards visual representations of information. I began to search for a model to support this self-searching process and came across a conceptual questioning framework produced by Michael Bungay Stanier in his book ‘The Coaching Habit’. His work has been expanded into a suite of online resources and courses through Box of Crayons ( This set of seven questions became very useful, so I will use this framework in the sections below to outline my approach to the handover process.

The Kickstart Question: The kickstart question erupted into a stream-of-consciousness writing exercise focused on a seemingly basic question: what do I do each day? I trolled through old to-do lists, examined email chains, skimmed through file folders, and scanned the walls of my office. This helped me to ‘break the ice’ and understand what takes up most of my time at work. Before I knew it, I had a lengthy list of tasks that could then be organized into main categories like ‘Assessment’ or ‘Middle Leadership Development’.

The AWE Question: I knew that I couldn’t have covered everything. I put down the coffee mug. I stood in front of my office chair. I went to speak with colleagues. I told them about the imminent handover and asked them to reflect on my role – what do we do when we’re together? What parts of my job support your success? In each case, there was at least one “Oh, yes!” moment that contributed to my handover document. 

The Focus Question: It then became apparent that, perhaps, much of what I do could be separated into two main modes of leadership: Relational Leadership and Operational Leadership. The challenge is that my role leads me to either support the ongoing development of the teaching staff and middle leaders around me (relational), or act due to an ‘operational need’ in a busy K-13 international school. Upon reflection, it was interesting to note that the latter of which often creates tasks that are outside of my specific remit! It then became necessary to pause and reflect on my actual job description: what are the parts of my job that are essential for a new joiner to take over? What elements could be ‘removed’ from a handover document with the knowledge that existing members of staff will likely ‘fill in the gaps’? What is the real challenge here? At this point, it dawned on me that the focus question could not be answered through an internal dialogue: the focus question should be directed towards my line manager. When I presented this line of questioning to my line manager, our conversation quickly became exploratory in nature. If I were to provide advice, I would suggest that it is useful to ask something like “What aspects of the role will you pick as the ‘first challenges’ for my successor?” The resulting conversation allowed me to narrow down the expectations that will be placed on the new joiner and I was able to ‘cut down’ what was becoming a lengthy handover document!

The Foundation Question: What do I want? Upon reflection, I realized that true success in my role comes in the relationships with other senior and middle leaders, and knowing how to get the best out of those around you. I was drawn to think about those I work closely with who need a daily verbal check-in. Who requires detailed notes or email follow-ups to be successful? Who will need the most support as I transition out of my role? When I began to write this down, I felt a sense that I was ‘trading secrets’ and that, perhaps, there would be a degree of confidentiality connected with my insights. This again required a visit to my line manager to investigate the elements of my working relationships that should be kept private and those which are essential to ensuring success from the outset. If I were to provide advice, I would note that we decided upon a short narrative for each member of staff that I line manage, starting with ‘STAFF MEMBER X works best when…’. We thought that this would be the best method of sharing my approach to leadership and any negative or concerning aspects of my professional relationships could be revealed in due course (if needed) through normal line management processes.

The Lazy Question: At this point, my handover document was all but complete. One aspect that was important to help ease the transition was to ensure that I provided hyperlinks to specific documents. I’m not sure that any approach to educational leadership could be considered lazy, but this would allow the new joiner to explore at their own pace and begin to understand our processes through handbooks, meeting notes, and working documents. My thought was that initial conversations would be more productive – I imagined my successor being able to say, “Oh, yes, I have seen this. Tell me more about…”

The Strategic Question: What would my successor be saying “yes” to? Would there be an opportunity to say “no”? This area of focus caused me again to visit my line manager and discuss the future of the role. I shared the aspects of my role that could shift to other high-capacity members of the leadership team, and we reflected on the future of middle leadership at the school. How could models of distributed leadership allow my successor to avoid specific (and time-consuming) aspects of my role? How could a shift in responsibilities strengthen the skills and expertise of both senior and middle leaders? It became clear that there is potential for growth in the adaptation of job descriptions.

The Learning Question: The learning question became merely a final reflection. My role as Deputy Headteacher allowed me to test my ideas at scale and initiate change from planning to implementation. I’d like to think that I was the face of successful change a lot of the time, but there were definite moments when I was forced to learn from my mistakes. Nevertheless, I was able to build relationships with skilled senior and middle leaders, supporting them to be the best versions of themselves. I will take what I have learned into the Head of Secondary position and continue my journey of learning and leadership. Up next: the first day!

Michael Norton is a Deputy Headteacher at Dubai International Academy (Emirates Hills) who has just been promoted to Head of Secondary at Collegiate International School. Both schools are 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 Master’s 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.

To connect with Michael on LinkedIn, click Here

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