UC Education Student Embraces the Unknown, Thrives as a Teacher in China

Danielle Habib sees success as a learner, teacher, and adventurer while living abroad

Danielle Habib

Danielle (left) talking with a street vendor

Living in Beijing, China, Danielle Habib, BS’07, MS ’14, has myriad opportunities to venture “out of her comfort zone.” Her entire experience as a UC distance-learning graduate student and teacher living abroad has been a successful way to transcend the ordinary. As Assistant Academic Director Cass Johnson sees it, adventurous pursuits like this and being able to move beyond one’s perfunctory experiences and perspectives is an important part of life and teaching. That’s why he assigns a “get out of your comfort zone” project to his students. This year, Habib is giving a whole new meaning to the assignment as she completes it from afar while also studying Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

“Danielle was able to take this out-of-comfort experience to true immersion, and she did a fantastic job,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s assignment asks students to do something they would not normally do by interacting with a cultural group with whom they do not typically interact. He also requires his students to write thoughtfully on how the experience made them feel and how it may inform their teaching and learning.

“It’s important for our future teachers to consider how their students might feel when entering the classroom,” Johnson said. “In our changing society and expanding globalized world, teachers will encounter a wide array of students with varying backgrounds and experiences, whether those students come from another country or another community right here in the U.S. Part of being able to welcome these students to the classroom is to understand their perspective as newcomers in the class.”

Danielle talking with a street vendor

Danielle (left) interviewing a street cleaner

Reflecting on the assignment and recognizing the beauty and value of exploring the unknown, Habib said, “I’m really glad this assignment pushed me to challenge myself and do something I wouldn’t necessarily think to include in my normal day-to-day schedule. This experience taught me ideas that I won’t ever forget.”      

For her assignment Habib notes that, initially, she found it challenging to think of something because as an expatriate living in China, so much of her time is already spent outside her comfort zone.

“Even daily tasks like going to the grocery store, riding the city bus to school, or walking down the sidewalk often challenge my view of the world as a white, middle-class American woman who grew up in Wisconsin,” she said.

Habib, who is currently teaching 6th grade language arts and geography at Tsinghua International School, decided for her project that she would need to interact with Chinese locals who have had very different life experiences from her – not just Chinese teachers in her school or those who are college-educated and familiar with Western ideals. With that in mind, Habib decided to visit a local hutong community, a traditional Chinese neighborhood where residents live a community lifestyle, sharing kitchen, bathroom, and outdoor space. Generally, hutong residents are poor and often provincial immigrants new to Beijing. 

Danielle interviewing a restaurant owner

Danielle interviewing a restaurant owner

Habib took her translator, a Chinese teaching assistant at her school, and meandered through the hutong, interviewing people about their life experiences. They allowed her to see the world through their eyes, describing their respective jobs, living conditions, and education levels.

“After my interviews, I found myself deeply struck by the living conditions and low salaries of the interviewees,” Habib said. “Occupational mobility does not exist, and the hutong residents have little control over the circumstances that shape their lives.”

Habib found herself questioning how her life would be different if she were born in rural China – and how education can afford access to opportunities that are otherwise unattainable. 

“So much of a person’s life is determined by his or her education,” she said. “As a teacher, it is critical for me to communicate the significance of education to my own students and to encourage them to become life-long learners who will promote educational value in future generations.”

However, Habib notes that although many families understand the importance of education, economic strife often makes it arduous or impossible for a family to keep their children in school when they could be working.  

“As an educator, it’s important to remember that a lack of consistent attendance at school does not necessarily mean that parents do not value their children’s education,” she said. “It’s important to show empathy to these families and support them.”


Danielle and her translator enjoying tofu from a street vendor

Habib describes living in China as a truly transformative experience. “I’ve never moved to a new place and left as the same person. When you work abroad, you learn to appreciate new perspectives and you always take a little bit of the culture with you,” she added.

Describing the most salient lesson she’s learned from working and learning abroad, Habib notes the need to be flexible. “Life throws unexpected things our way, and sometimes the only thing we can do is go with the flow. Some of my favorite experiences abroad have been unplanned and if I hadn’t been willing to step out of my comfort zone, I would have missed them,” she said.

Habib’s passion for teaching is exemplified by her abilities to move beyond her comfort zone and perpetually learn and challenge herself. She encourages her students, especially those with international backgrounds, to share their experiences to heighten her class’ collective learning.

“The most rewarding experiences come from watching my students learn and grow,” she said. “It’s so inspirational when they understand a concept we’ve been working on for a long time or when they can recognize their own progress and be proud of their hard work.”

In her role as a distance-learning graduate student in UC’s Curriculum and Instruction program, Habib applies her teaching mantra to her own learning. She challenges herself constantly and seeks out new opportunities and experiences, even in an environment where everything is already foreign. “It forces you to learn and grow,” she said.

Learning in an online format has provided Habib with the unique opportunity to “meet” and work with other graduate students who are also working abroad as teachers. She has shared experiences, techniques, and strategies related to TESOL because they also offer first-hand knowledge.

“We’ve been learning from each other. Also, the course material has been helpful, as I’ve been able to test theories and strategies about second language learners in my own classroom of second language learners.”

Taking online courses allows Habib and her husband, who is also working in China, to continue their international pursuits. She said they aren’t certain when they will return to the U.S. However, she is certain that when they do come home she will seek a teaching position that is characterized by internationalism.

“I hope to either teach at an international school or work with students who are new to America,” she said.