You Can’t Pour From an Empty Cup

Leader 2 Leader Blog,

By: Joyce Conley

We have spent the past two-plus years focusing on the social and emotional well being of our students and staff. As leaders, we are tasked with the work of providing an environment of a supportive and understanding culture. One that emphasizes collaboration, relationships, high expectations for both staff and students, data driven instruction, and so on and so on.  Let me be frank when I say that all of those tasks are exactly what drives student achievement and makes our staff want to stay. However, all of those initiatives, expectations, and verbs involve action from the leader. We lead by example; we put out what we expect. So if we are expecting our staff and students to be at the epitome of their game with our support, what are we doing to prepare for our monumental task?


What comes to mind is that old saying – you cannot pour from an empty cup. When’s the last time you walked into work feeling rejuvenated? If you can recall, how long did it take for that feeling to dwindle? You put in the work. In many cases, you’re the first one there and the last to leave. You don’t turn off your emails in the evenings or the weekends. You’re doing all of this to be the best leader you can be because … why? Someone before you said that was the expectation. Someone told you that leadership means you’re always on the job. In reality, though, it takes leaders who lead by example by taking care of themselves so that they can be their best selves for their students and staff.


When I started my journey into administration, I was there once – in that place of mental work overload. I recall staying at work until at least 6 o’clock every day, not because I had pressing work, but because for some reason, in my head and as a result of my then principal’s expectations, leaving before 6 o’clock meant I wasn’t a good administrator. There were days when I completed my daily tasks early, but since the principal was still there, I would find something else to do. I recall many conversations where other Assistant Principals and Principals would state what time they arrive and leave for the day and it was like they were competing for the top spot of longest hours worked. Now don’t get me wrong, there are times when the work will keep you there way past 6 o’clock. But bragging about it doesn’t seem right because staying that late most likely means something else is being neglected. 


About a year and a half into my first AP job, when I was five months pregnant, a personnel situation arose late in the afternoon that required an immediate resolution by the principal and myself. A friend was scheduled to pick me up at 7 p.m. because my car was in the shop.  While trying to work through the problem, the principal and I realized that we needed access to a program that was only accessible by our secretary, who was not on campus and wouldn’t be until the following day. Needless to say as time went on, I was stressed over having to tell my principal that I had to leave. My ride was waiting. There was nothing the principal and I could do to resolve the issue until the following day. So after agonizing for almost an hour, I finally mustered up the strength to tell her that I had to go. And to be honest, if looks could kill, I wouldn’t be here now writing this blog.


I was anxious about my decision. Surely my principal would understand my predicament. Halfway through my 40 minute ride home, a text message from my principal stated otherwise. I was told, in short, that administrators NEVER leave work in the middle of a situation. It was at that very moment that I had to choose. Me, the pregnant woman who had to catch a ride to get home to her middle school-aged child, or the “job”. The content of the text was hurtful and clearly warranted a response. Respectfully but matter of fact, I reminded my principal that I work my tail off for our school everyday. Also, I told her that I would have stayed if we could have resolved the situation and assured her that I would work on the situation first thing in the morning using necessary resources, aka the secretary.


There was a sense of liberation in hitting the send button. But honestly, I was very upset. What more could I have done but sit there and talk in circles and stare at her staring at the screen with no resolve? I had to prioritize and my priorities were being home with my child and not inconveniencing my ride any further. That was a day of reckoning. I realized that I have to take care of myself first or I’m not going to be effective in taking care of my school.  And that is okay. I learned a lot from that principal.


When I am at work, I am a worker bee, problem solver, servant leader. Then I go home and take care of my family. I have seen so many people NOT find the ability to put themselves first; they get burnt out and resentful. I love being an administrator. I love what I do. But I am silly to think that if I do not mentally, physically and emotionally put myself and all that that entails first, I wouldn't be able to do this job effectively and with a smile. I know that my people need me to be a half-way full cup, and when I am not, they notice.


Throughout this pandemic I’ve seen so many administrators leave the profession. For what reason, I don’t always know. However, I do know that this pandemic has proved that life is too short. We must do the things that make us happy. We must take time out to support our mental, physical, and spiritual well being. As a problem solver, I want to support my administrator colleagues. I know what that job entails and mostly, we need the support of one another. I created a network centered around supporting the development and retention of assistant principals. I find joy in providing a space and mentorship to support my colleagues. If I can share my experiences or motivate one AP, I’m happy. To be able to do that for thousands now has been a blessing.


Knowing that leadership in education in general is tough, my goal is to provide tools and tips to help leaders take care of their mental, physical and spiritual health. To that end, I created a subscription box and community for Caring Leaders to reach leaders across the US. If that box, note, products, and/or tips can help leaders keep pushing, then my mission is a success. I’m just a leader who strives to help other leaders stay motivated and realize that they need to add themselves to the top of their to-do-lists.


If you are interested in learning more about the assistant principal network and subscription box, you can find both at  check out or find us on Facebook. We need one another now, more than ever.