When he migrated to the US at the age of 16, with two pairs of pants, two shorts and $20 in his pocket, Alhassan Susso never imagined that he would one day become the number one teacher in America.
After living in the US for close to two decades, Susso finally realized his American dream after he received the state’s top educational honor as the 2019 New York State Teacher of the year.
In an interview with Parkchester Times, Susso shared his journey of being a 16 year old immigrant from the Gambia to becoming the most brilliant public school educator in the State of New York.
“Being the number one teacher in America I think it’s something that is extremely gratifying but also very surprising,” said the married 35-year-old father of three kids.
“I am the first from New York State over the past 50 years to be able to elevate to the national teacher of the year for the National Teacher Association.
"As the African saying goes, if you stand tall, it is because you’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before you. I feel like I am just being carried on this journey by all those who have paved the way for me to be where I am today.”
However, not all was rosy in Susso’s journey as he had to overcome a lot of setbacks that most immigrants are too familiar with.
“When I arrived in America, I settled in Poughkeepsie in New York with my brother and that’s where I went to high school. After graduating from High School I did not go to college right away because I had like a family tragedy back home,” said Susso.
“My grandmother’s roof collapsed. She was the one who raised all of us. When that happened, even though I was all registered for my classes in college, the question then became do I pursue my own ambitions and follow my dreams or try to give back to the woman who has given me so much? So that was not an easy choice.
"I chose the latter and dropped all my classes and then worked for six years, two full time jobs to rebuild her house but also build a house for my mum so she could have a secure place to be. Once I was done achieving those goals, that’s when I enrolled in college. At that time, I was not really sure but I was leaning more towards business.”
Susso explained that as he was still struggling to decide on the program he was going to study in college, in the year 2008, his sister back home in the Gambia was diagnosed with hepatitis B.
“We tried all kind of medical procedures in Gambia but unfortunately, the medical facilities were not equipped to treat such a disease. The most likely way we could have saved her life was to bring her to the US to get the medical care that she needed,” he said.
“Even though we met all the requirements, she was denied a Visa and then four months later she passed away. On the day that she passed away, eight hours later, the grandmother who raised all of us also passed away from a heart attack. That was a huge tragedy for my family and while I was in school I flew back home that same evening to be with my family.”
Upon returning to the US, with his sister and grandmother’s tragedies still fresh in his mind, Susso decided he wanted to pursue immigration law with a goal of helping families and empowering young immigrants to have a life that his sister never had.
As Susso was in the process of putting in his law school application, he met an advisor and after engaging with them, he was convinced to pursue another program that would still guarantee him the goal of helping immigrants.
“I told my advisor about my family and what we have been through and what my goal in life is,” said Susso.
“She thought about it for a while and said if that is your goal to empower young immigrants and be helping immigrant families, I don’t think law school is the place for you because by the time you’re able to defend those kids in the court room, they will either be heading to jail or in the process of getting deported. Why don’t you think about doing something that will ensure they will never even have to see the inside of the courtroom? When I thought about what that would look like, education became the absolute choice.
"Like Nelson Mandela said, education is the weapon that one can use to transform the world. That is how and why I became a teacher.”
Susso, graduated in political science and history from Vermont College in 2011 and in 2012, he started teaching at the Bronx’s International Community High School in Mott Haven.
It was during his time at the Bronx International Community School that Susso’s works got the attention of the school authorities in the city and across the state.
Asked on how the selection process for State Teacher of the year is conducted, Susso said it starts from the school where one is an educator.
“It initially starts at your school. Somebody has to nominate you. So for me, it was my mentor who was responsible for me when I became a teacher. She saw my growth and development and said this is something I think would be a great feat for me so she nominated me,” Susso said
He added that, “Once the nomination happens, then your Principal has to evaluate your record and everything and sign off on your application then it goes to your superintendent.
"He or she will also do the same. Once both of them determine that okay he would be a good candidate for this, by that I mean, you have achieved enough to be a good representative for educators then they send it to the union in this case the UFT (United Federation of Teachers) and the president of the UFT will also review the application and he also has to sign off on it.”
Susso said once the president of UFT signs off, the application is then submitted to the Department of Education for New York State.
He said the DOE reviews the application; they will then select a small pool from that group depending on the number of applications they receive.
Susso said the next stage involves the DOE asking applicants to write a series of essays on their education philosophy.
“They will review all those writings and then make a determination within that ground of small round who should be selected to get to the next level. Once they make the determination then the State department of education would then send representatives to your school,” he said.
"At your school, they will interview your principal, your colleagues, and your students, some of their parents and then they will look at your curriculum and interview you. It’s more like they want to ensure everything you have put on paper is actually accurate,” said Susso.
He said after that process, officials from the DOE would then select five individuals who would be considered as finalists for that particular year.
Susso said the five finalists then proceeds to Albany for their final interview at which the panel of 10 interviewers determines who would be a great ambassador for the state of New York.
Asked on how life has been like since he received the highest honor in the State, Susso said being teacher of the year has given him a voice.
“People listen to you more than they would otherwise because you have a seat at the table. Secondly, it’s this idea of elevating issues that are important to me and issues that also affect members of my community,” he said.
“For example, I teach at an all-immigrants school so if you wanna have those students take five standardized New York exams, I think that is very difficult to achieve given that they have language barriers when they get here. When I became New York teacher of the year, I brought that issue to the commissioner because I sit at his advisory council. When you’re state teacher of the year, you’re one of the people who advise the commissioner who then will implement policy that in return will impact your students.
"As a consequence of that, my students now take only one standardized exam instead of five. This has lifted a huge burden not only at our school but a number of immigrant schools across the city.”
Susso said since he became teacher of the year, he has also partnered with other teachers of color from other states since there are not so many of them, particularly males in the teaching profession.
“There is about four of us. One is from Maryland and he was the teacher of the year there, Arizona teacher of the year and the Virginia teacher of the year. We were the black male teachers of the year for 2019,” he said.
“So what we did was to create a network whereby we not only attract but also support young male who are interested in the teaching profession. That is starting to get going at this point and then we are looking to formalize that as a national network whereby through our stories, our achievement and our examples, young people of color could see themselves in us. So we are premiering that process as well.”
Susso said he has also been working with the Gambian Department of Education in terms of their teacher training that he said needs support with their teacher development program.
He said he was currently working with the pioneer of the program called teach for Gambia whereby they are looking for the best and brightest graduates who would be willing to spend two years in the classroom before embarking on a career of their choosing.
“Our goal is that once they enter the classroom, hopefully, the passion of teaching even if they don’t stay in the classroom but they could become advocates for educators. That is something that is on the way at this point. In a nutshell, I don’t just see myself as a classroom teacher alone but rather, I am using my voice in a manner to make an impact on the issues that matter to me,” said Susso.
"At the end of the day, the accolades are great and I am very appreciative of them because they’re able to open doors for me that would not have been opened otherwise.”
Susso said a visit to the White House and being in the Oval office with President Donald Trump was one of his memorable accounts.
“As a young boy from The Gambia to be sitting inside the Oval office of the president of the US I think that’s a remarkable journey. And then to be able to have conversation with policy makers at the highest levels of government, I think also that’s another incredible honor that I will never take for granted. But all of that starts with taking my education seriously,” he said.
“As complex as this society is, there is one value that nobody can ever take away from you that is knowledge that you gain in your life. If young people are reading this article, my one advice would be take your education extremely seriously because it’s the one thing that you can hold on to for the rest of your life. People get rewarded in public for what they have practiced for years in private. If you want to know why somebody is where they’re, dig deeper and find out what they have done,” he said.
In addition to being the State Teacher of the year for 2019, Susso was also selected as the national teacher of the year in February by the National Education Association (NEA).
“When you become teacher of the year and every state selects one person to become the national teacher of the year. I was selected as the NEA national teacher of the year, throughout the entire 50 States. I was basically the one representing them. My tenure would end in February 2021. As of now, I am the ambassador for the 3.2 million public educators in this country,” said Susso.
Before being selected teacher of the year for 2019, Susso, back in 2016, did publish a book titled “The Light of Darkness: The Story of the Griots’ son, in which he reflects on the 16 years spent in the US and another 16 years spent in the Gambia.
“What are some of the lessons that I have learnt from both cultures? And how can I explain my journey to my students in a way that here is somebody who came to this country with nothing but he is now able to live his American dream. If he can do it, I should be able to do it as well and more than anything, that’s what I hope young people could gain from reading that book,” said Susso.
He said he hopes to publish another book soon whose title would be derived from the common responses he gets from his students.
“When I try to advise the immigrant students that I teach, they always say “you don’t understand” but I tell them actually I do. So I always joke that my next book is going to be entitled “Mr You don’t understand,” said Susso as he laughed.
“When people are facing challenges most of the time, they tend to think that they’re alone in their struggles. When young people in general are able to get this sense that their challenges are not unique and that whatever they might be going through is more or less universal that is when they begin to realize that not only will they be able to overcome this but somebody else, so many other people have overcome whatever it is that they’re going through,” said Susso
He added that “It becomes an example of how to go about living their lives despite the challenges that they’re facing.”
Asked about some of the challenges he was faced with teaching students from the poorest Borough in the City, Susso said the challenges vary from district to district and from student to student.
“In a larger scheme of things, I think it’s twofold. So education is both the development of the mind…nurturing their collective development. I think about my students and my school. My students come from different parts of the world. And 99 percent of the students live below the poverty line based on their parents’ income and then they live in District 7th which is the second poorest congressional District in the US,” he said.
“So when you compare language and economic barrier, it creates this sense of inferiority. I think for many students in public schools what they want to know and feel is this sense that they matter. I think as educators if we can assist students with what they’re asking, do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you? I think at the end of the day, everybody just wants to feel validated.
"If we can validate our students’ experiences not only would we be able to empower them academically but we will empower them in a manner that will transform their lives forever,” concluded Susso.