How would you define vulnerability?
It’s a question Alhassan Susso recently posed to his new class of seniors, mostly recent immigrants, at the International Community HS in Mott Haven in the Bronx.
Their answers come rushing forth: Something that can easily break, lack of confidence, insecurity, someone who is easy to manipulate. Those responses lead to a class discussion about how vulnerable we are when we take risks, especially when we’re learning.
He reminds the class that “we’re here to help each other instead of making fun of each other.”
Susso wants his students to feel valued, to be self-aware about the choices they make every day, and to speak up without fear of being “wrong” or mocked. Covering his face with a jacket, he makes the students laugh — and uses body language to bridge any gap created by unfamiliar words — to mimic the masks people wear to hide their true feelings.
For Susso, the connection to history is clear. “History is not just about understanding the past, but understanding the choices people make,” he says. “Every day you make choices, and those choices are making history.”
Susso, in his sixth year of teaching, has been named the 2019 New York State Teacher of the Year, an award conferred by the State Education Department in recognition of “exceptionally skilled and passionate educators.”
“He’s been really good at motivating students and helping them to achieve their goals,” says Chapter Leader Josef Donnelly. “His demeanor is very compassionate, and students feel that level of engagement and concern.”
Akilah Clarke, an English teacher at the school, says Susso is a role model for students and teachers alike.
“He’ll tackle questions in class such as what is morality, are laws just and when do we stand for something?” Clarke says. “And he sets expectations of professionalism.”
International Community HS, which occupies the fourth floor of a Bronx middle school, has 400 students from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Senegal, Mali, Bangladesh and elsewhere. Susso’s laser-like focus on struggling students helped propel the school to an 80 percent graduation rate, Clarke says.
It’s been quite a journey for Susso, who left Gambia when he was 16 and joined a brother, Sankung, who is also a New York City teacher. Susso has a degenerative eye disease that was only properly diagnosed when he arrived in the United States. He wears corrective lenses, but in class he’ll occasionally stumble into a desk or projector cord that is just outside his vision. Susso took stock of his remarkable journey in a self-published 2016 memoir.
“Raise your hand high and wave it” when you want to get my attention, he tells the class, which has grown quiet as he reveals his personal story of immigration and near-blindness. “And tell me if someone’s hand is up. It’s a challenge that God gave me. We each have blessings and challenges.”
Susso’s life story provides plentiful examples of perseverance. He originally was going to study immigration law, when his pre-law adviser at the University of Vermont suggested another way to achieve his goal of empowering immigrant youth: as a teacher. But that transition was not an easy one. When Susso thinks back on his first year of teaching, he sums it up in one word: “tumultuous.”
“I didn’t understand how to connect with the students,” he says. “I was demoralized.”
He began searching for answers with deep self-reflection and by attending seminars on communication and human behavior and reading widely. He now quotes everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who wrote about the search for meaning in life.
Sixty students show up twice a week for an hour before the start of the school day for a half-credit program Susso created called Inspiring Teens’ Future, which offers instruction on leadership and life skills.
“So many students encourage other students to join the program,” Clarke says. “They get there at 8 a.m.!”
Susso said he learned a combination of things in the years since his rocky rookie year.
“But at the core of it,” he says, “is that people will forget what you do and say, but not how you made them feel. No one leaves my classroom without a smile. It’s about how they feel.”