If it wasn’t growing up in North Philadelphia, a decade in the beauty trade or another 15 years as an educational administrator, it was living in close quarters with a multigenerational family during the headiest days of the pandemic that truly prepared new Cherry Hill High School West principal Toni Damon for her role.
“We had 18 months to be at home. My mother and my mother-in-law moved in with my family because we wanted to make sure everyone was safe and secure,” Damon revealed during a conversation with the Sun on Sept. 28.
She recounted how she saw hesitation in the eyes of senior citizens fearful of going to the supermarket during normal hours.
“Quite often, I would step back and allow someone to take my place in line,” Damon added. “It made me think about my own mother and mother-in-law. We had the wherewithal to get up at 5 in the morning and stand in line if we needed to. But how could we see our parents doing that?”
Passing along that anecdote to her children, Damon noted, gave them a sense of respect for their elders and a broader view of self and their place in this world.
Thinking about how she is now tasked with upholding the letter and the spirit of the “West Way” provided a great homespun lesson that recalls how one’s actions, at any age, will impact others.
Through her initial career as a cosmetologist, Damon quickly realized that in order to be the change she wanted to see in the world, she’d have to be proactive to forge the right path – and one where she would know enough to call the shots.
“Even though I had gotten my certification and my bachelor’s degree (from Temple University in vocational education), I felt like there were individuals making decisions for me, my program and my students, and they did not really understand what career and technical education was,” she admitted.
“The only way to have a voice is to educate yourself and position yourself to make a difference.”
After Temple, Damon earned a master’s degree from Cheyney University in educational leadership and special education, then a doctorate from Saint Joseph’s University in instructional leadership.
“When that happened, it opened up a whole new world,” she said.
Soon after, Damon embarked on her administrative journey. Delaware County Intermediate Unit and Chester Upland School District were looking for an individual who could oversee career and technical education for the county, and Damon fit the bill. A turn at Central Montco Technical HIgh School then provided her with additional experience in community engagement and ways to properly meld technical and academic worlds.
Back under lockdown with a husband, five children, a mother and mother-in-law all under one roof, Damon felt the need to branch out beyond Philadelphia and look for a place where her extended family would be welcome and the distance between home and work wasn’t so taxing.
Cherry Hill seemed the perfect fit at the perfect time.
“I was very impressed by the level of commitment to inclusion and diversity that Cherry Hill has,” Damon noted. “I love the commitment to being kind, caring and reflecting on your own behavior and how you impact the world around you.”
Damon was also duly impressed by the number of elective courses at West that she felt lent themselves to a successful combination of career and technical education, along with academic rigor.
Calling herself a “servant-leader,” Damon presents herself as one who works at the pleasure of the community, the students and teachers. She wants to balance discipline with compassion, knowledge with curiosity, answers with questions.
“My sole responsibility is to make sure they have what they need to grow and thrive.”