Middle school at The New Century School enters its fourth year with a fresh new face as homeroom teacher: Gab Sussman. The first thing that strikes anyone walking into Ms. Sussman’s classroom is her warmth. She positively radiates enthusiasm and kindness, and it’s obvious that she wants to be there.
Educational and Professional Background
Growing up in Putnam County, in New York, Ms. Sussman attended both public and private schools and has a broad understanding of what both types of school have to offer. She attended Loyola University Maryland here in Baltimore as an undergraduate in a pre-med program. She said that battling the physics and calculus courses was fine for a while until she heard a classmate talking about her elementary education classes. Something clicked, and just like that Ms. Sussman changed her major to elementary ed. “That’s where it all began,” she said. “After I graduated in 2012, I went back to New York City and began teaching in early elementary classrooms in independent schools.” She also pursued a master’s degree in educational leadership at Fordham University. “There I did a lot of professional development around integrating technology; about reading and designing curricula; as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she explained.
After her time teaching and earning her graduate degree, she returned to Baltimore in 2019 to “close the gap,” as she puts it—she and her now-spouse had been maintaining a long-distance relationship and decided it was time to change that. “When I started working here in Baltimore, I had the opportunity to teach the upper elementary grades, and now I’m really excited to be teaching middle school,” she said. The impetus for her progression up through the grades came about during that professional development for coding and computer programming. Although she loved teaching early elementary, she and the school librarian started a coding club, and so she began interacting more with upper elementary school students. “What was also fun about that was, as my own students were getting older and advancing into older grades, I was able to keep in touch with them through the club and see how much they had changed. Our relationships grew and got deeper because they were older and experiencing a perspective shift. Through that after school program of coding, I realized that I really enjoy teaching older kids.”
So, when she was planning her move back to Baltimore, she had a good deal of flexibility as far as what grades she was comfortable teaching as well as what age groups she enjoys teaching. She got a position teaching in an upper elementary classroom in a Baltimore independent school. “This felt really familiar,” she said, “to be teaching 4th- and 5th-graders. It was new, but also at the same time I had the experience of teaching coding to that age, so it was a way to expand my career and my skills as a teacher.”
Her path to teaching middle school happened along a similar trajectory. At the school where she was teaching, an opportunity to coach middle school field hockey middle school presented itself. This happened during what she calls “the pandemic year” and turned out to involve more than just coaching field hockey. “I was getting to know the students and hearing what their days were like and supporting them social and emotionally. They had just done online school for a whole day, and now they’re showing up for a virtual practice. It was new, but again it was an opportunity for me to interact with this age group.”
Falling into Place at TNCS
And now here she is at TNCS! She says she started wanting to teach middle schoolers in a more direct academic way, so when the position opened up here, she was quite excited about it. She has both the very familiar upper elementary–age students in her English Language Arts (ELA) classes as well as the fun new chance to teach her 7th- and 8th-graders as both homeroom teacher and ELA teacher as well as Global Studies teacher.
Things are falling into place in multiple ways for Ms. Sussman. “One of my favorite things about teaching upper elementary and now middle school are the amazing middle grade and young adult books. They are engaging and rich and complex, and I love being able to reach students through books,” she said.
Stories are really powerful, and being able to find that genre or find that one book that really turns the student into someone who loves reading feels really fulfilling. It takes the legwork to do the research and find those well-reviewed books and getting them in the hands of students, but those windows and mirrors are a really powerful way for young people to learn about the world and relate to the world outside of their own bubble of families and friends. It broadens their understanding of how the world works. I think that books teach lessons and can be opportunities for connecting with other people.
Ms. Sussman has ideas about how to reach those students who may not be independently grabbing a book to read or defaulting always to graphic novels.
What I love about ELA is helping kids make that bridge from graphic novels to really learning what kind of stories or what kind of characters appeal to them. There are all kinds of graphic novels; they’re not just fantasy. And the graphic novel genre and and format is very appealing to students of all ages and strengths and skill levels. Being able to help students understand that there’s something about the kind of stories that you enjoy, so let’s dig deeper into that. A lot of it has to do with just learning more about who you are. I really try to find those kinds of stories that kids need or are yearning for and and put them in their hands. ‘This is the story you’ve been wanting—once you start reading and you literally fall into the book, you’re not going to miss the pictures. The words will paint those pictures for you.’
In her second month at TNCS, Ms. Sussman says she already loves it. “I’ve always been drawn to smaller communities. As a kid, I was really lost in a large public school, and I felt like it was really hard to figure out who I was and figure out where I fit in the larger community.” She explains that this informed her university choices as well as where she felt most comfortable teaching. “The smaller structure in many ways is conducive to a stronger community feel,” she said. She also feels that TNCS is authentically diverse and multicultural:
It’s very tangible. It really affects how people interact with one another, and even in small communities, you can still feel isolated or you can still feel alone. So, it feels really wonderful to be part of a community that is intentional about representations of cultures and ways of life here. It affects the expectations that people have for each other, and it feels very vibrant in a unique way.
She says this carries over even into how some students are new to the school and some have been at TNCS for their entire academic careers. “There is really rich history in their relationships with each other. It feels natural, and, in a way, it mirrors society in terms of how people have history in a place and some people come and go.”
She’s right at home at TNCS and in her ELA classroom. And the answer is no, if you were wondering whether she experienced any regret about giving up medicine in favor of a career in education.
I would be a very, very different person if I had not gone into education. I think being an educator is part of my identity—from the the training that goes into teacher education to the experience of working with kids and partnering with families to staying up to date on child development and what literature to expose kids to. I can confidently say that I feel really proud and really happy with where I am. As I was growing up, I had an older sister go to medical school and seeing that and wanting to be like her, might’ve been a factor in why I thought I also wanted to be a doctor. But having that conversation with that one person majoring in elementary education allowed me to carve this path on my own and for myself.
That sister went on to become a child forensic psychiatrist, and so she and Ms. Sussman are both experts in different areas of child development and not only have interesting conversations but are also able to support each other in their respective work.
All in all, it’s pretty clear that, at least for this part of Ms. Sussman’s story, the ending is a happy one.