May/June 2019 Issue
April 19, 2019

MISSION POSSIBLE: State’s top teacher connects with students through humanity

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
alhassan susso
Caption: Susso, who suffers from a rare degenerative eye condition, commutes two-hours by train from his Poughkeepsie home to Harlem, then takes the subway to his school in the South Bronx, arriving well before classes start. “If I can show my students that, despite my condition I still do my best to get to school an hour early to prepare, they too can overcome any obstacles they face. The choices they make will shape the life they lead.” Photo by Becky Miller.

In telling the story of Alhassan Susso — New York State’s 2019 Teacher of the Year — there are many places where one could start. But since this is, ultimately, a story about teaching, let’s start there. Or, more specifically, let’s start with the impact that one teacher can have on the life of a student.

When Susso was a teenager, he emigrated from the Gambia to the United States. He ended up in Poughkeepsie. With no place to stay, he lived in homeless shelters while attending high school. On the eve of his first-ever standardized test, he found himself without a place to stay for the night. Rather than preparing for his exam, he was forced instead to scramble to find shelter.

And there by his side, every step of the way, was his high school reading teacher, Pam Felter.

“She was not only there to make sure I succeeded academically, she was there to ensure that I was completely taken care of,” Susso recalled.

“She validated my humanity without highlighting my brokenness. That gave me the foundation of what teaching should be: To ensure that kids are able to succeed academically, but also to ensure their overall well-being is at the core of what we do as teachers.”

The impact that Felter had on Susso — who teaches history at the International Community High School in the Bronx — is one he still feels today. That’s why Susso considers teaching not just a career, but also a mission.

“It is my job to help young people facing difficulties in their life make sure the obstacles they face do not become a barrier to their success,” he said. “When I look at where I am today it could not have happened without the assistance of great teachers who guided me during my formative years.”

Jay Shuttleworth, a professor at Long Island University who also serves as a social studies and curriculum coach at ICHS, said: “What’s energizing about Alhassan is that he reinforces the idea that good teaching starts with the needs and interests of the students. He shows us what it looks like to bridge theory and practice. He’s created courses where the learning objective is: ‘what kind of life should I live?’ Students find those kinds of objectives energizing, empowering and inspiring.”

Kimberly Flattery Gaston, a special education and literacy teacher at ICHS who has come up through the teaching ranks with Susso and has witnessed his career development firsthand, said her colleague’s strength is his willingness to be “self-reflective.”

“He also has a positivity and an energy that is contagious,” she said. “He brings it into the classroom, he brings it to students and even as a leader in the school. He works really hard.”

“What I strive for in my classroom,” said Susso, “is to give students an opportunity to feel the learning process should be joyful. So there is a lot of laughter. Every day that I am able to put a smile on a child’s face, then I consider that a very successful day.”

Long day’s journey

Susso, a member of the United Federation of Teachers, lives in Poughkeepsie with his wife and two children. He gets up at 4 a.m. each morning to catch a train to the Bronx, where he arrives an hour early at school to prepare. He returns home each night at 8 p.m.

ICHS sits in the nation’s poorest congressional district. Every student is a recent immigrant. They come from more than 15 countries, speak different languages, and hold many different beliefs. Most come from families living below the federal poverty level. And many entered high school reading at a fourth-grade level.

As an immigrant himself, Susso is well aware of the challenges they face. That’s why — besides handling a full teaching course load during the day — he also created a before-school program in which he develops in his students the leadership, communication and financial-management skills necessary to achieve their dreams.

Last year, every student who completed Susso’s course graduated high school and 97 percent are enrolled in college.

“All my students see all day are obstacles,” said Susso. “I have been through the process they are going through, and know what the journey ahead is going to be like for them. When I first initiated (the before-school program), people thought I was crazy. If students aren’t coming to school on time, why would they come an hour early? We started with seven kids. Last year, there were over 60 kids. If students are learning something that will impact their lives, they will come to school no matter how early the class is.”

To say that Susso understands obstacles may be an understatement. Besides dealing with homelessness upon his arrival in the U.S., he fought desperately to bring his ailing sister here for medical treatment. Ultimately, those attempts were not successful, and she died at 19. Susso also suffers from a rare macular degenerative disease that’s left him with 20/80 vision.

He expects to go completely blind.

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said Susso’s “incredible life story and unwavering commitment to his students are an inspiration and a reminder of the dedication, excellence and professionalism found in classrooms” across the state.

“Alhassan is the type of educator that knows he constantly needs to improve,” said Berenas Cabarcas, founding principal of ICHS. “He started out as a student teacher, and he had a rough first year, but he kept on going. And his mission was to be the kind of teacher that our students need and deserve so that way he can transform their lives for the better — especially being an advocate for immigrant teens.”

Maria Faliz, a former student of Susso’s, has experienced that very transformation.

“Before Mr. Alhassan, I was a very shy student. I didn’t speak English at all. So I was afraid of everything,” she said. “He helped me build my confidence. As a minority, when we see people like him succeed, we can see that we can reach that goal and be like him and so we can connect with him.”