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Acknowledging the empty cup

“Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long.”
Michael Gungor

Why? Why do I punish myself? Why do I get up early on a Saturday and Sunday morning and trudge myself round the paths and bridleways around my home for two hours at a time? Why do I spend many evenings dangerously navigating myself across the local fields illuminated by only a rather unreliable and antiquated head torch?


Well, I love it. Running is my passion.

It fills my cup.

However, dear reader, it wasn’t always like this.

In 2012 I was unfit.

I don’t mean unfit as in a difficult medical position, no, not like that. However, considering my age at that time and my current lack of work-life balance, I soon quickly realised that if I continued living my life applying the same modus operandi, my health, both physically and mentally, would soon come to suffer.

I had just re-started my educational career. Following a break from working directly in schools, I was keenly awaiting to redirect and transfer into the world of primary education. After many years in the secondary sector, I was ready to reinvigorate, reenergise and rediscover my passion for the classroom. However, it was now April and I had a long four months before I could start.

I was at home doing very little. I was on pause. Mute. Standby. At a standstill and looking daily into an abyss. Sadly the eagerness of starting a new role and an exciting chapter in my educational career, was being gradually, and inadvertently, overshadowed and thoroughly eroded by constant self-doubt and, on reflection, crippling anxiety. The cup had emptied. The cup was lost.

Cutting a very long and, possibly-very-boring-to-those-who-are-not-my-parents-or-very-supportive-friends, story short, I decided to start running.

Starting on the 6th April, every day, supported by a free app downloaded to my phone, I would aim to run a little bit more than the distance I had ran previously and very slowly, together with the little American voice pre-recorded in the app that accompanied my daily toil, my confidence, pace and distance increased over time.

I had started a journey that changed my life forever.

It went like this…

Couch to 5K app.

Sprinted. Walked. Stumbled

Sprinted again but tried to go faster.

Tried not to walk.


Injured knee.


Sprinted again.

Coughed and grew dizzy.

Cursed running and all that it was.

Hurled garishly expensive trainers into a rather substantial garden hedge.

Sulked. Moaned. Groaned. Walked.

Ate more sausage rolls, crisps and chocolate.

Bought new less garish and less expensive trainers but this time wanted to.

Walked but this time walked better.

Ran but this time ran slower.

Walked but this time wanted to run more.

Ran but this time felt I was running.

Ran more. Walked less. Ran more.




Three half-marathons, nine marathons and four ultra-marathons later.

I love every step.

The cup returned. Even better, I now knew how to fill it.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have days where I can’t be bothered. Where I’m so tired I could quite happily leave running behind me. Sometimes I’m a runner who is in receipt of a sense of motivation that’s trapped in a dusty, battered box lodged at the back of cupboard, sharing its occupancy with previously worn medals, crumpled and tattered vest numbers and rusty, unsafe-safety pins. Having said all that, these moments of self-doubt and lack of motivation are now few and far between. Running always keeps coming back. Tapping me on the shoulder, hurling the trainers out from under the stairs and yelling me to get moving.

I run, therefore, I am.

I know this because without running and my weekly regime, my cup would soon be empty again.

Nothing left to pour.

Teaching and education is, in essence, transactional. From the carefully planned and sequenced sharing of knowledge and skills to pupils in our classrooms, the timely and effective administration of good practice to develop our staff teams, to the successful distribution of information to ensure sustained and positive relationships within our wider school community. All of these transactions are for the betterment of our schools and, without doubt, our pupils.

To do all of this effectively, our individual and collective cups need to be full. Not overflowing. Not sloshing precariously over the brim and splashing the toes of our smartly polished shoes but carefully measured to ensure there is enough available to support our individual roles in school and, if needed, to top up those who are becoming empty.

To continue with my obsession with running, let’s use the analogy of a relay race. Imagine being in the final hand-over position awaiting with anticipation the baton to which you will receive and grasp, aiming for the finish line. However, unfortunately and, unbeknownst you, the runner currently holding the baton, the baton you are waiting so patiently to receive has already run a marathon. They are tired, broken, worn-out and wobbly and miles behind the other runners. Their cup is empty. Their cup is no where to be seen. Furthermore, sadly no one saw it was missing nor that it had anything in it before the race had even started. The impact is noticed by all.

The key to keeping a full cup is to make time to fill it.

No matter how busy and hectic our lives maybe be, burnout is only around the corner. It hides, lies in wait and, when we are least expecting it, it slowly and silently sits alongside us.

It’s evidently clear that we all need take time for ourselves and rediscover those activities that enable us to keep our cup brimming but sometimes we forget. However, like anything of substantial importance we must ensure we plan for it. Allocate time. Carve up the evening or weekend to find it. Prioritise.

For some, like me, it might be running. Others it might be reading, singing in a choir, playing an instrument, knitting, writing, walking, skipping, bungee jumping, learning a new language, fencing, cookery, a combination of everything in this list or quite simply taking the time to stop, switch off and spend time with friends and family.

Whatever it is, we have a responsibility to make sure that we take time to recharge. To replenish our cup in order to pour again.

Critically, those of us who are leaders, we must ensure that we construct and embed cultures within our schools, institutions and organisations that look out for those colleagues whose cups are not yet full, development for those who don’t know yet how to fill them and, sadly, support those who may have lost their cup completely through no fault of their own or, without knowing, the systems and processes we, or the custodians before us, have put in place in.

Our work in education is vital and now, more than any other time in our careers or generation, we need to ensure we are all still standing to support the children and families who belong to our school communities. Importantly, we need to take time to support ourselves and being in the midst of half-term for some and with the weekend just around the corner for others, what better time to find out what fills your cup.

Look after yourselves.


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