Last Thursday, I attended my second funeral this month. Twila Norman, my boss from 1995-2000, suffered a massive stroke and died about ten days ago. I hadn't seen her in about five years. Every time I get together with my friend, Deb, which is about once a month, we talk about how we should call Twila and invite her along some time. Somehow, the two of us never got around to it. And now it's too late. And I feel really, really sad about it…
Twila was perhaps the finest example of leadership that I have ever known. She taught me so, so, so many lessons:
1) Twila carried herself with dignity
When I think about Twila, the first word I think of is "dignity." Twila carried herself with dignity. She attended everything from board meetings, to neighborhood protests, to professional development, to custodial picnics. Whatever the situation, when she entered a room, (usually sliding unobtrusively into the back), people sat up and paid attention. She wasn't ever haughty, or prideful, she just carried herself with such dignity, that she inspired that in others as well. When I talk to kids about behavior, I picture Twila, and tell them to carry themselves with dignity.
2) Twila demanded excellence of herself and those around her.
Twila never settled for less than her best, and she demanded excellence of those around her as well. And somehow, because she lived it, and because she asked for it, the people who worked under her, pulled off pretty much anything she asked. I remember one time when she asked me to create a one page visual for an instructional model we were asking schools to implement. When she asked, I just looked at her, because the task sounded so big and so impossible, but then, because I knew she expected it, I played around and came back with a draft the next day. She suggested one major modification and then it was done. And we used that visual for the next five years.
Twila rarely got to the office before 9:30 or 10:00. That wasn't because she was lazing or lollygagging at home; instead, Twila started every single day with a visit to a school. She would show up, mostly unannounced, stop in the office, talk to secretaries, teachers, and parents, and do a walk through with the principal. She understood, better than anyone I have ever known, what was going on in the schools- what was going well, what needed to be fixed or adjusted, what stresses people were under.
4) Twila did what was right for teachers and kids, whether or not it was popular.
Twila guarded her schools carefully. She watched and counted and coordinated the number of things of that were being asked of her principals and teacher. To be included on an elementary principal meeting agenda, or start an initiative, you had to first meet with Twila, explain exactly what you wanted to do, why it was necessary, and what time commitment it would entail for those involved. Twila wasn't afraid to say "No", or "That's too much," or, "Not now." That was not always popular with the masses, but it allowed schools to focus on what was important, and kept the workload manageable and the stress load down, at least a little, for principals and teachers.
5) Twila laughed a lot.
When I remember Twila, I remember laughter. Twila, and her assistant Rick, laughed pretty much every day, and I'm not talking about giggles, I'm talking about the kind of belly laughter that made tears run down your face or caused your stomach muscles to hurt. When I first moved into my office next to theirs, I was a little surprised by how much they laughed, despite how full and challenging their days. At one point, I must have said something about it, because I remember Twila telling me, "Carol, this work we do is very, very hard. It has to be fun also, or we couldn't do it." I have never forgotten that.
6) Twila let me be who I was.
When I was hired by the district, in 1995, I was on a five person team, who went out to schools and did professional development, demonstration lessons, and met with principals and teachers. A year later, Twila asked me to take on a new title, elementary literacy specialist, for the entire district. As such, I would report directly to her, help with decisions about curriculum, plan PD, and head the Standards Team. I was more than a little hesitant, because I knew that was an office job, and I loved schools and kids. I told her I didn't think I was the right person for her job. She still thought I was. I told her I couldn't be in an office, that my work was fed by the work I did in schools. She told me I could still do that work, but that she would give me a pager. I could be out in schools as much as I wanted, but that she would page me if she needed me. If she paged me, I needed to call her as soon as I could. I agreed to try it. That system worked for us for three years, until she retired.
6) Twila knew how to maximize people's strengths.
Twila hired a secretary for me. That sounds like a silly thing, but it really wasn't. As literacy specialist, I was responsible not only for designing curriculum and professional development, but also for communicating with more than eighty principals and the teachers in their schools, for organizing workshops, including making the copies and ordering the coffee. That was in the days before email, and I spent hours and hours and hours making labels and stuffing envelopes, and managing registration for classes. Usually, I did that part of the job after hours, or took it home, but Twila didn't think that was a good use of my time, so she hired a part-time secretary, someone who had retired from the district several years before. My secretary answered the phone, stuffed envelopes, filed, and just generally freed me up, in both physical and mental hours, to do the work I loved, and the work I had been hired to do.
7) Twila called me out when I needed to be called out.
Twila loved me, but she also called me out when I needed to be called out. I vividly remember one notable situation. Twila and I were in her office, talking about a situation with my team. She and I disagreed, and the conflict got heated. I remember raising my voice to her, and then leaving the room, and returning to my office. A few minutes later, Twila followed me. "Carol," she said more than a little firmly, "I am 62 years old. I am your boss. You will not talk to me like that." And then she turned on her heel and left. A few minutes later, I apologized. I don't remember her ever having to call me down like that again.
8) Twila taught me how to handle conflict and difference of opinion
I started working for Twila when I was in my early thirties. I had a little over a decade of experience in the classroom and as a literacy coach. I had strong opinions about my craft. Sometimes, if I thought people were wrong, I felt compelled to let them know. One day, I was in a meeting with Twila and some other people. I don't even remember the topic of the meeting, but I remember announcing to the group that something that was said was a stupid idea. Afterwards, Twila called me on it. "You don't tell people their ideas are stupid, Carol. You can't say that and hope to accomplish anything. You have to bring people along."
That "bringing people along" was something Twila did really, really well. It didn't matter whether it was the most obstinate principal, the most militant special interest group, or the angriest parent, Twila would bring them along. She would say, "Help me understand," and then she'd fold her hands and sit back and listen. By the end of the conversation, people would be nodding and laughing and agreeing. I still use that phrase, "Help me understand…" today.
10) Twila loved her husband and sons deeply.
Twila worked a lot, a lot, a lot of hours, probably easily 60 or 70 a week. Even so, I always knew that her family was her first priority. One day, I remember her leaving work at 4:00, which was almost unheard of for her. Her husband was sick; she said that hardly ever happened and she wanted to be there for him. Fred, who she had married shortly after college, was her best friend, her dancing partner, her travel companion. I have thought about him so much in the last two weeks, wondering how he is doing without her after 57 years of marriage. Her two sons were out of their home by the time I met her, but her face lit up whenever she talked about them. She was so proud of their accomplishments, their wives, their families.
So on Thursday, I said goodbye to Twila's physical body. Her influence, though, will live in my life forever. She taught me so much. She lived and loved so well…