Public Education Foundation / Senior Advisor, Leading and Learning


Edna Varner


Senior Advisor, Leading and Learning, Public Education Foundation

College/University Attended:

UTC (Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Secondary Education: English; Trevecca (+45 in Administration), Tennessee State and Carson-Newman (Doctorate-in progress)

What is your favorite aspect of being a leader?

Working with a great group of dreamers and risk takers.

What advice do you have for women aspiring to be leaders in their field?

Keep a journal of what the leaders who inspire you say and do. Step up to roles that give you an opportunity to practice those qualities.

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact your life?

Historically, Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, is my North Star. She could see “possible” in impossible and she was willing to go the distance to reach it in Helen. Leaders have to see “possible” and help others see it. They have to be undaunted when others try to convince them otherwise.

Presently, I have a number of leadership role models who have taught me some valuable lessons. They will recognize themselves: Do your homework.  Pay attention. If you’re going to lead, lead. Read. Show up. Don’t be afraid to fail; it’s a temporary setback. Laugh at yourself.  Don’t miss a chance to lead just because you’ve never done it before; every great leader was once someone who had never done it before.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing female leaders today?

The biggest challenge is fearing how women will be perceived when they step into roles traditionally held by men. When I was appointed principal of Howard School, I was taken to lunch by a community leader and told there was some apprehension about whether I could be tough enough. I told him my plan was to be smart enough and others might want to try that with students since tough didn’t seem to be working.

Approximately how many years have you been involved with CWLI?

About 10 years.

With what other community organizations/activities are you involved?

Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, United Way, Siskin Children’s Institute, Read 20, UnifiED, Rotary, The Aim Center, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, The Links, Incorporated, Thrive 2055, Chattanooga State Foundation, Girls Inc., Chattanooga Housing Authority, YMCA, The Mayor’s Council for Women, The Women’s Fund, Ballet Tennessee, Habitat gala committee, Chattanooga 2.0 and WTCI.

What initiatives are you excited to tackle with CWLI?

I am currently chairing Leadership Luncheons and loving our Leadership Studies series. I would like to work with others who can help us keep growing in numbers without losing the relationship building aspect that is so important.

What changes do you hope to see in the organization as it grows?

I am hoping we can be intentional about helping every member find her niche so that while we keep growing, we still have opportunities for small group work so essential to relationship building. I would also like to see more younger women, retirees (you’re not done!), and women of color step up to leadership roles within CWLI.

What strides do you think members can take to make more of a difference in women’s leadership issues in the local community?

We need to move outside our usual circles. Attend conversations we haven’t attended in areas of interest and passion. Step up. Speak up.

How would you best describe the benefit found in joining this organization?

The greatest benefit is meeting and learning with women I would never have met. I don’t want to miss meeting someone extraordinary and I have many opportunities in CWLI!


To learn more about Edna, check out our interview with her.