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What is Your WHY

Originally published on October 3, 2019

Happy Thursday,

Last Friday I attended and presented at the annual Buffalo State College PDS Conference. One of the highlights of the conference every year is that they have the NYS Teacher of the Year as the keynote speaker. For me, this is a highlight of the event because I almost always learn something I didn’t know (like in 2013 when Greg Ahlquist taught me about Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset) or when am I inspired by someone’s creativity in the classroom (like in 2017 when Amy Hysick. Hysick, a HS science teacher found a way to use relationships, humor, and [of all things] costumes to build her students’ interest in science).

This year’s Teacher of the Year, Alhassan Susso, teaches government, economics, and personal development at International Community High School in the South Bronx. Even if he wasn’t a teacher, Susso would still be an inspiring person. Here’s why…Susso knows his “why.”

What? Susso knows why he does what he does. That’s where his keynote speech with us started. Not with his backstory, but with asking the audience to turn to the person next to them and explain why they do what they do. This is an important and primary question that is different for everyone, but should be the driver behind our work.

Susso’s why is to help immigrant students become successful so that they do not have to suffer by being deported or imprisoned. He’s driven to do this because when his sister was 17, she was living in Gambia and was diagnosed with Hepatitis B. Where she lived did not have the life-saving treatment she needed and she tried to get permission to come to the US for the help she needed but she was denied. Four months later, she died and within days, the grandmother who raised her and Alhassan died too.

This inspired the desire in Alhassan to pursue a law degree. However, he had a professor who said to him that rather than changing policies for people who were already in jail or on their way back to their home country, why not work with children so he could educate them and prevent them needing a lawyer. That is why he became a teacher.

I could go on and on about his impact on his students. For example, he created a before-school elective called “Personal Development” in which students arrive at school an hour early to learn about:

  • Mindset and emotional mastery

  • Vision and goals for the future

  • Financial management

  • Interpersonal and communication skills

  • Leadership

All of the students at his school are immigrant students. The graduation rate was in the 30s and the absentee and tardy rates were high. His principal questioned how he would get students to come to the class in the first place since it was before they needed to come to school. The number of students who did this the first year were low, but every year the number of students who participate has increased. Now 100% of the students who participate in that single course graduate and 97% go to college and schoolwide the graduation rate has gone from 31% to 81% in five years (read more about Susso and his school at This is a remarkable change that Susso credits to his students knowing that he cares about them and they care about each other.

More than sharing with you Susso’s story, which is remarkable, I am curious about YOUR story. What is your “why?” What are you doing that impacts your students when they are with you? How will your students remember and talk about their time with you? Please let me know because, as Susso said, “The stronger your why, the harder you will try.”


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