Jan. 30, 2023

Social work instructor inspires his students with magic wands and miracle questions

Lateef Habib energizes, educates and supports the next generation of social workers as a teacher and field instructor
Lateef Habib is surrounded by his students; they are all holding up plastic magic wands.
Lateef Habib, back row, second from left, and students from his Mental Health and Addiction Practice with Adult populations (SOWK 616) class. Zoltan Varadi, Faculty of Social Work

Lateef Habib likes to gift his students a magic wand. To be clear, Habib isn’t a character from a Harry Potter film. He teaches at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Social Work, not Hogwarts. The wands are from the dollar store, but that doesn’t make the magic he practises as a clinical social worker and teacher any less real.

“I give them the magic wand because I practise solution-focused therapy,” explains Habib, MSW, RSW, who is a registered clinical social worker (RCSW) and clinical supervisor with Alberta Health Services (AHS), an adjunct professor (field education), faculty field instructor, and sessional instructor with the Faculty of Social Work.

In solution-focused therapy, the wand goes with a miracle question. A question that can change the trajectory of a person’s life: If you could wake up the next morning, and your life was changed, what would that look like? What would you want to see?

It’s a weeknight evening and following a long day of clinical practice and supervising five students, it would be understandable, even expected, if Habib was tired or even soul weary. Not a chance. As usual, he is literally vibrating with a positive energy that he liberally sprinkles on everyone he meets — from restaurant servers (who treat him like an old friend) to innocent bystanders at nearby tables. His smile and energy never fade. He’s an irresistibly positive, maybe even magical, force.

Habib, who is American, is an Ivy League graduate who began his education with a psychology undergraduate degree. Like a surprising number of social workers, he speaks of discovering the profession like Indiana Jones uncovering a lost temple. However, like many social workers, it also seems like he was born to the profession. He was a serial volunteer throughout his youth — until one of his professors finally said, "Uh, Lateef, have you ever considered taking a social work class?”

He did, and he was hooked. He stopped applying for clinical psychology master’s programs and started applying to do a master’s in social work. He chose Columbia University in New York City and says he instantly knew this was his calling. He was energized by his first practicum involving individuals challenged by a recent mental health diagnosis.

For his second practicum he purposely chose to work with individuals who had a court mandate to seek treatment for drug and alcohol addictions. “I learned to meet the client where they’re at,” he says. “If they’re in the pre-contemplation stage, then meet them there. They were a privilege to work with; to be part of their healing. Part of their recovery.

“And the rest,” Habib adds, “is history.”

That history includes more than 25 years of helping a huge variety of clients, including those experiencing serious mental illnesses such as psychosis and bipolar disorders, to those challenged by eating disorders, to marriage and family counselling, and even running a hospital day program.

The other important part of the history — especially for the many patients he’s helped, and students he’s mentored and taught — was relocating to Calgary in April 2016 for family reasons, a move he has embraced. 

Besides his position with AHS, Habib was also offered a position as a part-time sessional instructor with UCalgary social work, where he subsequently volunteered to become a practicum supervisor and mentor.

When COVID began and many field education opportunities vanished, he stepped up and took on 10 practicum students, either directly supervising them or acting as an external supervisor for other placements. He meets with his students regularly, guiding them individually or in group sessions — teaching, supporting, and helping them to get started in the profession.

“We work on values, ethics, professional identity, advanced clinical practice, collaborative practice, linking research to practice, diversity, oppression and social justice,” he says, with his energy rising to another level. “And Don, can I tell you? I thrive on it! I love doing this and I love being part of their process.”

From what you’ve read so far, you likely won’t be surprised to learn that he keeps in contact with about 90 per cent of the students he’s supervised. Mentorship for him is a lifelong connection and he makes the time for frequent coffee meetings, providing references, and career advice, while offering professional guidance. 

The students, like the patients he works with, clearly also feel his magic. He is regularly recognized for his supervision and teaching and last year he won a faculty teaching award. But rather than seeking kudos, he says, instead, that he feels “immense gratitude” and “tremendous privilege” in pursuing the profession he loves, while being an instructor, field education supervisor and mentor.

“This is my purpose and passion in life,” he says. “I always say to my students, ‘May you be inspired. May you be challenged, and may what you learn in this space together enrich the lives of your clients and yourself.’”

Interested in becoming a field instructor? Shape someone's life and career, and support the social work profession with your wisdom and professional guidance. Earn ACSW Category A credits, and much more. For registered social workers with a social work degree. Field instruction is the heart of social work education — and we can't do it without you! Learn more