BY CLYDE HUGHES, AC JosepH Media
Pennsauken High School principal Gregory Munford recalled a recent time he boarded a bus to wish his seniors well as they prepared to go to Disney World in Orlando, Florida and told them, “I love you guys and come back safe.”
When a student told him he felt that his principal really meant it, Munford replied, “I do mean it.”
Munford has been principal at Pennsauken, one of Camden County’s largest high schools just across the river from Philadelphia, since August 2015 after serving a year as assistant principal. He is driven not only by his bedrock commitment to give his students what they need to succeed in life but by his faith as well, which constantly reminds him the real reason he is doing what he is doing.
“As a man of faith, and trying to walk my faith, it causes you to stop and think about your interactions with people,” Munford, who taught in Newark Schools before coming to Pennsauken. “In the position that I have, I could be very vengeful. I don’t think that’s the right perspective to have.
“I think about what is my real purpose here? Is it to be the hammer or is my purpose is to educate? I think being a man of faith helps me to stay focused on what’s really important and why I’m there. It is a ministry. Whether those students go to church on Sunday or if they are a different faith, I think being able to see me as someone who truly cares about them and being able to use me as a resource, whether they are right or wrong, I think that’s the biggest part my faith plays in it,” he continued.
Munford is an educator and a family man. His wife Theresa is an administrator in the Willingboro school district. His oldest daughter is studying at Rider University and they have a son and daughter in the Winslow school district.
Munford is part of a newly formed group of more than 100 African-American male school administrators in South Jersey who have been meeting monthly on an informal basis to share best practices, gather job leads, fellowship, etc.
“I’ve been an administrator for six years and that is actually not a great deal of time,” said Munford, who was invited to the group by a colleague of his wife. “You have retired administrators there who have 25 to 30 years of experience. We can put our questions out there and get feedback. It started out with a group of 10 to 20 people present and our last meeting we had 30 to 40.”
Munford started out teaching English and used to make a two-hour drive from his home in Winslow Township to Newark every day; longer coming back in traffic. He admits he still is adjusting to driving the shorter distance to Pennsauken. He said, though, he cherishes the opportunity to engage students on a larger scale as principal more so than he could as a teacher or as a former basketball coach.
“Sports is an extension of the classroom and I think I did some of my best teaching when I was coaching because you control the playing time,” Munford said. “It’s amazing what you can get a kid to do when you control how much time they get on the floor. Mandatory homework, tutoring sessions, reports on behavior; you can really turn a kid around.
“But now I have more access to more students and there will always be kids that will gravitate to you for whatever reason. There are always some kids who will need something a little extra from you,” Munford continued.
Munford said he is acutely aware being principal comes with responsibility and scrutiny, not only because of the decisions he has to make on a daily basis, but also because he is an African-American in a high level of authority.
“We’re definitely under a microscope with everything we say and do,” Munford said. “While others may be able to show a little bit of passion, where that is acceptable, the stereotype of the angry black man is never acceptable. You have to figure out a way where you can be firm, can be taken seriously, but do it in a way that doesn’t play into certain people’s stereotypes that will pigeon hold you or want to confirm anyway.”
He added, though, that he cares about making an impression on his students and the parents he serves at Pennsauken. Munford said he dresses in a shirt and tie daily because of something his father said to him years ago.
“I can remember my father saying put on a shirt and tie because you may be the only man of color (the students) see with a shirt and tie on all day,” Munford said. “I noticed when a wore a suit, students responded to me differently. Some people dress like they don’t work in education. It’s very important for young people to have a visual of what a professional looks like. When they start to look at you, they have that pattern in their mind.”
Before arriving at Pennsauken, Munford was an assistant principal at The Reengagement Center, in Newark for two years. Before that, he served as an academic dean at Newark’s West Side High School, where he also taught English for 13 years. He began his career at East Orange Public Schools.
As principal, Munford said he is not only responsible for the students at Pennsauken, but the faculty and staff as the building leader. In dealing with students, he said he hopes they learn from how he responds to something they did negatively.
“I tell students often that I don’t like what you did, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m willing to help you,” Munford said. “It doesn’t change how I feel about you as a person.”
Pastor Damon Dukes, of RockLife Church in Swedesboro where Munford attends and is part of the leadership team, said he has seen Munford’s calm demeanor in action working with young people and adults there and is thankful for his presence.
“I learn from him every time he opens his mouth,” Dukes said. “He is great at seeing the perspective of other people. There might be three different people and he can see each of their perspectives without holding on to him being right so much. He’s humble enough to say, ‘That perspective makes a little more sense.’ It’s more inclusive and doesn’t exclude. That’s a really pivotal thing when it comes to leadership.”
Munford admits he sometimes falls short of his ideal but says he tries to correct himself when the opportunity presents itself.
“I would like to think I’m big enough to say I think I was a little coarse when we spoke earlier,” Munford said. “It may not change what I said, but the way I said it may have been wrong. When people can look at you as someone who tries to treat people well and put their needs first and foremost, I think that is the best testimony.”
Dukes said he believes Munford walks that path successfully more times than not.
“He’s a very kind and gentle-spirited man, at the same time he’s a man’s man,” Duke’s said. “He’s a leader. He’s brilliant. He’s working on his doctorate right now and he doesn’t share that with people. We are so blessed to have him at the church.”
As the new school year rolls around, Munford said he hopes he can continue to be a positive role model for the students and faculty at Pennsauken.
Photos courtesy of Gregory Munford.