Alhassan Susso didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a teacher, but a teacher is who he became. Today, he teaches government and economics in the South Bronx, New York, at the International Community High School. There, he also created a personal development program that took his school from a 31 percent graduation rate to 81.2 percent within five years. So, you could say he’s taken to being a teacher quite well.
In turn, Susso earned the distinguished title of 2019 New York State Teacher of Year. Inverse recently spoke to Susso, who just began his eighth year of teaching, about what advice he has for new teachers, how he achieves a work-life balance, and what about his profession brings him the most joy.
Hi Alhassan! What inspired you to become a teacher?
What inspired me to become a teacher is family tragedy and experience. I would not consider myself a natural born teacher, but circumstances led me to this profession. In my first semester in college, I pursued business administration. But that summer, after my first semester, my 19-year-old sister who lived in Gambia, where I am originally from, was diagnosed with Hepatitis B.
We tried to get her the treatment that she needed in Gambia, but the medical facilities available were not advanced enough to treat the disease. We then tried to apply for a visa, so that she could come to the United States and get the medical care that she needed, but she was denied the visa. Four months later, she passed away. Eight hours after she passed away, the grandmother who raised all of us also passed away from a heart attack, due to the shock of her death.
My world stopped. When I came back from the funeral, I thought I knew what I needed to do with my life. I planned on becoming an immigration lawyer so that I could help families and young immigrants not go through what my family and I had been through. I went to the University of Vermont, studied pre-law and political science, and when I was getting ready to go to law school after taking the LSAT, my pre-law advisor asked, “Why do you want to become a lawyer?”
"She thought about it for a while and said, ‘Well, if that’s truly your mission — to help immigrant families and to empower young immigrants — law school might not really be the place for you.’"
I told her the story of my family and what we had been through. She thought about it for a while and said, “Well, if that’s truly your mission — to help immigrant families and to empower young immigrants — law school might not really be the place for you.” She explained that by the time I would be able to defend those kids in the courtroom, one of two things could happen: They could either go to jail or they could get deported. So she said, “Why don’t you think about doing something that will ensure that they will never even have to see the courtroom?”
I thought that was a compelling argument, so after thinking about what that would look like, education became the obvious choice. As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Do you remember how you felt before your first day as a teacher?
I remember that first day like it was yesterday. I stood in front of the classroom door shaking, hoping no one would notice. Internally, I was feeling extremely anxious because, while it was very exciting, it was also nerve-wracking meeting a group of kids for the first time. I wanted to be a good teacher, but I also felt unsure of myself. Balancing those two emotions was quite an experience.
How I feel now definitely doesn’t compare to that first year, but every school year does come with certain feelings of nervousness and worry. Every group that you meet is going to be different — so while I have this understanding that it’s going to be okay, of course, the night before I’ll be a bit anxious about things like mispronouncing their names and my own personal expectations.
What aspects of teaching provide the most joy for you?
I teach seniors, and looking at my former students now becoming teachers themselves, going to law school, going to medical school, becoming business owners — it just sends me into a state of wow. I can’t believe I had something to do with that. It is incredibly fulfilling.
Something else that has provided me joy stems from my decision to create opportunities and programs that can give students avenues to succeed beyond high school. One of these programs takes place in the morning, before school starts, and it’s designed to teach students life skills, like creating a healthy mindset and attitude, emotional management, and communications skills.
When I started at school here, the graduation rate was 31 percent. But since the beginning of the program, last year actually, over 70 percent of our seniors were actually coming into school an hour early to be a part of this program. As a result of that, our attendance rate has gone up significantly, and last year our graduation rate was 81.2 percent.
People always ask, “Why do so many kids come to this program?” Well, it’s simple. Many of my students have gone through very traumatic experiences, and while these are traumas they have processed in the past, they are still living with them. They come to the program because it creates the space, and opportunity, for them to express themselves and hopefully overcome the challenges they have been carrying.
My mom is a teacher, and I’ve always thought of it as such an interesting profession because teachers both have to complete the task of the job, and have to consider students’ outside lives while they’re at school. How do you balance those factors in the classroom?
My philosophy about teaching is that it is all about cultivating and nurturing relationships. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to influence somebody if you don’t know what influences them. So while what you’re teaching is extremely important, students are more likely to retain knowledge if a certain foundation is built. For me, that foundation is a strong relationship that I’ve built with students.
"My philosophy about teaching is that it is all about cultivating and nurturing relationships.”
Are there boundaries? Absolutely. But there’s a need to understand that, in order for students to build connections, they need to see teachers as human beings — not as robots in front of the room, trying to impart knowledge to them. It’s important to not only help them acquire academic skills but help them become decent individuals so that by the time they leave the classroom, they are not only knowledgeable citizens, but also contributing members of society.
I’ve personally seen friends who are new teachers carry the stress of the classroom home because of the emotional components of the job. Do you have any advice for early teachers on how to handle their work-life balance?
This is a very emotional job because we are not teaching in a vacuum. Our students bring with them a lot of experiences and stories, and they request of us to be story-holders for them. And the job of the story-holder is not to make it your own, but to hold the story.
It’s important for teachers to listen to our students when they share their experiences, but if we carry that all the way home, it will impact our life. Teachers cannot be effective if they are distraught.
I remember that, in my first year of teaching, I found a tree right in front of our school building, and whenever I left, I would touch that tree. That action, to me, means that Alright, all the problems I faced today, please wait for me here until tomorrow. I still do this, and while it might seem a little silly, it truly does help me begin to shift my focus, because I have a 6-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a wife at home, and they all need me to be fully present.
People have to find techniques that work for them, but two other practices that help me navigate the daily complexities of teaching are meditation and journaling. I take the train home, and I use that time to journal about the day and let it all out on paper. That helps me achieve a sense of calm. What I tell other teachers is that “it’s hard to provide something that you do not possess,” and in order for us to help our students, we have to take care of our own personal health.