By Erin Wooddell
In November, longtime CWLI member, Edna Varner, was recognized for her lifetime of achievement at the Chattanooga Foundation’s Dinner of Firsts. As the first in her family to graduate from college, Edna has made education the focus of her career. From enlightening the minds of middle schoolers with the delights of English grammar, literature, and history to helping teachers feel more included in the decision-making process as a principal, Edna’s career spans all aspects of the education world.
She was honored to be recognized at the Dinner of Firsts, and was surrounded by more than 400 of her closest friends and family. The money raised by the Chattanooga Foundation helps Chattanooga State students not eligible for Tennessee Promise funds gain financial assistance for school. Edna believes removing the hurdle of college debt helps people with incredible potential accomplish great things.
Edna’s career in education began as a leader in the classroom. Reaching students and enriching their minds were her highest aspirations. She even received her master’s degree in education to make her the best teacher she could be.
When she learned that a group of friends and colleagues were all headed back to school to get their master’s in administration, Edna jokes she didn’t want to be left behind, so she joined them. With that extra degree under her belt, she was able to step up to the leadership table, first as assistant principal in a school where she could teach as well as manage. This exposure to both sides of the coin helped her see that teachers needed a voice—someone in administration to look out for their interests.
“I was at the decision-making table, and I realized, ‘Wow, I like this because I have great ideas.’ As a teacher, your thoughts and perspectives live with you; they don’t really get very far. I loved bringing great ideas to the table and advocating for them,” Edna says.
As a vice principal, a lot of her ideas were implemented. When she was asked to be principal, it was an easy decision. Edna knew she’d be able to influence change in that position.
“I wanted to treat teachers like adults. So often in schools, teachers feel like kids because they are constantly asking for permission to do things…they are constantly following guidelines made for students. My dream was a school acting on the combined visions of teachers living out their greatest aspirations for students,” she says.
This career journey taught Edna to always give new opportunities a try. Outside of teaching, she is often asked to take a leadership role in organizations. Even when it’s a group or a cause she’s never been involved with, she knows she needs to try it out. Her secret? Joining as co-chair, first, and spending the first year following examples. Edna loves to take notes on practices she thinks will help her as a person. In a new role, she will study how the current leader approaches situations, what’s been done that Edna likes, what questions are asked, and how initiatives are accomplished. Edna will take notes and start practicing those things.
“I still do that. I still have a little journal I carry with me. If someone asks a really great question, I note it. One of my favorite questions is, ‘What is the problem we’re trying to solve?’ I find that in some meetings, we’re trying to settle on solutions when we have not clearly defined the problem. It’s also important to routinely reference the organization’s mission. What the membership wants to do may be absolutely wonderful, but if it is not our mission, it’s something wonderful someone else should be doing,” she says.
Getting Involved in CWLI
Edna’s first recommendation for getting involved is to join a committee. Within that committee, she says you’ll find opportunities for leadership.
“Some people think leadership means you’re the chair or the president, but there are lots of other opportunities for leadership. For example, on the Leadership Luncheon committee, our committee members volunteer for something like registration. That sounds simple until it’s done poorly. The women who devote energy and creativity to making registration run smoothly are leaders and it shows. In my experience, small acts of leadership build capacity and identify those destined for larger leadership roles.”
With CWLI especially, Edna has noticed that when you lead, you never lead alone. Everyone helps out. In every leadership role Edna has had with CWLI, a group of energetic and encouraging members and colleagues are there for support.
“These women offer an education on leadership,” she says, “providing advice from personal experience, modeling professionalism and persistence, lifting and encouraging other women, and sharing their wisdom on dealing with tough issues in the workplace. I’ve learned in CWLI that’s it’s okay to toot your own horn and recognize others. That’s something women don’t want to do. I now go out of my way to call out the names of other individuals who have helped me achieve something. Other leaders have started doing the same thing. That’s what gets people to step up—the fact that someone recognizes them. It’s not why we do it, but it’s nice that someone notices,.”
Above all, Edna encourages us to keep learning. Read widely, jot down great ideas, quotations, questions; do your homework; pay attention to what great leaders say and do; reflect on what you’ve seen and experienced, and focus on using it to be the best you can be.
To learn more about Edna, head on over to her Member Spotlight Q&A.