The Most Important Thing a School Administrator Can Do

I was recently asked what one thing I would tell a new school administrator that they should do to support the staff they work with each day.

Now I am sure some folks could give impressive statements about unpacking standards, interpreting data, or recognizing which interventions provide the most impact for student achievement. The idea would be that helping teachers with efficacy is the very best thing and administrator can do for the entire School community.

Others might say helping teachers take care of themselves and their mental and physical health is the most important thing an administrator can do. Or perhaps that helping teachers to feel supported in both word and deed is of central importance. Or maybe doing the very best that one can do to keep “nonsense” things off of the teacher’s desk if they can be handled in the office so that teachers can concentrate on teaching and not paperwork.

Now each of these things is important and could be the correct answers to the question. I am also sure that there are other ideas far more impressive than what I have considered that could be noted however none of these are my answer.

My answer probably sounds quite simple and I guess that it is but the one thing that I would tell an aspiring school administrator that they should do for their staff is simply this…

Pray for them!
Pray for them every day.
Pray they have patience and wisdom and strength and enthusiasm.
Pray they show tenderness and mercy.
Pray they share compassion and love
Pray they listen with their heart.
Pray they have courage.
Pray they teach boldly!
Pray they push each child to become their best.
Pray they help students learn and that they teach students to love learning.
Pray they remember to take care of themselves and their own families.
Pray for their health – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Pray for them as individuals.
Pray for them by name.
Pray for their unique needs.
To offer these prayers you must get to know the people you work with.
You must learn about them and their families.
Their past and their present.
Their hopes and their dreams.
You must be available.
You must seek conversations.
You must take time to be present.
You must listen. Listening not to respond, but to really hear.
And then you must pray…every day.

There are a lot of other things a good administrator should do for those whom they have been entrusted to serve.

But the most important thing I do (and that I doubt most of my staff even know about) is pray.
And that is what I would encourage any school administrator to do – be they new or old.

As in so doing you will connect in a very different way.

And you will remember that any impact you have and, any leadership you provide comes not from you, but from a partner located in a place much higher than your building, the district office, or even the state department of education.

And I would tell any aspiring administrator God is the very best partner anyone can have.

Depression: You Keep Using That Word, But I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

You Keep Using That Word, But I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.


It does not mean sad.

It does not mean upset.

It does not mean “blue.”

It does not even mean grief.

Unfortunately, that is what the world equates the word with today.

Serious clinical depression also is not fixed with just a couple of pills. Mild depression may be dealt with in this way, and treating mild depression with medicines may prevent the clinical form of the disease…much like cholesterol drugs can help prevent or stave off heart disease. However, sometimes even with these drugs, a heart attack happens.

But serious clinical depression is not this. Serious depression is hopelessness.

Serious clinical depression affects everything.

It affects the one who has the disease.

It changes the world as it was once known.

Spouses and children become caregivers.

And even if they don’t really know it, it touches family and friends.

It even alters the air in the room.

And while it affects the body and mind, its biggest impact is on the soul.

And it is exhausting – for everyone.

In fact, author Parker Palmer states the following in talking about his episodes with debilitating depression: “People walk around saying, ‘I don’t understand why so-and-so committed suicide.’ Well, I understand perfectly why people take their lives. They need the rest. Depression is absolutely exhausting. It’s why, day by day for months at a time, I wanted to take my life.”

Andrew Solomon is the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, for which he received the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. He came to this conclusion about depression. He concluded the opposite of depression is not happiness; rather, it is leading a life human vitality. And in a life of vitality, even pain has its place. Depression takes away all of that—happiness and pain—and leaves a gaping dark hole of nothingness.

Solomon states that depression is “an experience of finding the most ordinary parts of life incredibly difficult: finding it difficult to eat, finding it difficult to get out of bed, finding it difficult and painful to go outside, being afraid all of the time and being overwhelmed all the time. And frequently, it’s quite a sad experience to be afraid and overwhelmed all the time. Nonetheless, those are the essential qualities of it. It isn’t, I think, primarily an experience of sadness. And it teaches you how big emotion is. The profundity of the inner self, I suppose, would be the best way of putting it.” 

The poet and psychologist Anita Barrows shares that “Suddenly, in depression you are ripped from what felt like your life, from what felt right and familiar and balanced and ordinary and ordered, and you’re just thrown into this place where you’re ravaged, where the wind rips the leaves from the trees, and there you are. Yeah. Very, very much the soul in depression.”

So as you can see, depression is hard to describe if you have never experienced it.

But looking for words to describe depression is important.

Because statistics say one in ten people and, even more dramatically, nearly one in four women in the U.S. will experience clinical depression during their lifetime.

And for those who need to express what happened, or is happening, in their lives, the word depression without further explanation is inadequate.

Yet if we read them with fresh lenses, even the scriptures show that the disease of depression is a plague…in fact a plague only outdone by death itself…

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—a darkness that can be felt.’” (Exodus 10:21)

When clinical depression strikes, it is a darkness that can be felt.

Even Christ knew anxiety that led him to isolation and despair. He even became so anxious as to experience hematohidrosis —a bloody sweat caused by extreme anxiety and fear—in the Garden of Gethsemane. Scripture states that even in the midst of his disciples, Christ felt alone. Though perhaps not clinical depression, the recognition that God knows the darkness that can encompass provides hope to those who battle the demons of serious depression.

If fact the good news and hope from both the Old and New Testaments is that it the darkness does not have to be victorious…but as with fighting any physical disease, the ultimate journey to healing and wholeness requires lots of struggle…lots of patience…lots of ups and downs…trial and error…successes and setbacks…and—perhaps the most necessary of all—the gifts of time and of presence.

Parker Palmer shares this powerful story that describes how a friend was able to help him through his journey of depression.

There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.

Depression—the world keeps using that word, but I do not think they know what it means. Anita Barrows, who is also a lover of language, perhaps best shares this idea when she complains “that the word ‘depression’ itself does not do justice to this human experience.”

Deep depression is a disease. A disease of the mind, body, and soul. A darkness that can be felt. The Psalmist says over and over it is “the pit of despair.” And it impacts all those who come in contact with it.

It should not be minimized… if it is to be overcome, it cannot be minimized. Instead depression must be treated with the same compassion given to anyone experiencing any lethal physical disease.

The world should know that in order to gain remission the war with depression requires all the tools the community has available–medication, prayers, therapy, rehab, lifelong monitoring and real empathic kindness. Most importantly, it requires letting everyone going through the darkness know that you are present with them all as they go—that they are not alone as they struggle.

Clay Gunter


Resource used for this entry:

On Being A Podcast hosted by Krista Tippett
The Soul in Depression – Andrew Solomon, Parker Palmer and Anita Barrows
February 26, 2009