Theodore High School is doing its part to prepare the next generation of dental professionals in Mobile, Alabama. Led by instructor Susan Sheffield, the school’s dental assisting program is currently in its ninth year and has helped students go on to become successful dental assistants, hygienists, and even dentists.
“I just do it for the students,” explains Sheffield. “I knew I could help them get jobs and continue with dental assisting or go on to hygiene school. It’s just been such a great career for me.”
Sheffield worked as a dental hygienist for 30 years before getting the opportunity to lead the dental assisting program when it was added as an elective at the school’s Healthcare Academy.
“The only reason I took the job was to give back to the community,” she says.
Sheffield teaches two junior classes and two senior classes — about 30 students in total. For students in their first year in the program, the curriculum is more academic and designed to help them learn the foundations of dental assisting. It covers everything from human anatomy and infection control to the different types of dental instruments and procedures.
Seniors in the program get to continue their education in a clinical setting. The school works with local practices to place dental assisting students in yearlong internships, where they can get in-office experience and apply the knowledge they’ve gained in the classroom in real-life situations.
“It’s really been good seeing how things run in the office,” says Emily Tran, a senior in the internship program. “Every time I go in there, I learn something new. It’s amazing.”
A student intern’s specific responsibilities can include learning how to prepare exam rooms, clean instruments, take X-rays, and communicate with patients. Bailey Adkins said the fast-paced nature of a dental office has stood out in her internship experience.
“There’s a lot of stuff assistants do that you wouldn’t think they could do in the short time they have,” says Adkins.
Precursor to a career in the dental field
For many students in the THS dental assisting program, the internship is a precursor to a career in the dental field. Sheffield’s former students have gone on to become successful dental assistants and hygienists.
For example, Adkins plans to work as a dental assistant for two years before applying to the Alabama Dental Hygiene Program (ADHP). Fellow classmate Courtney Harbison also wants to pursue dental hygiene through the ADHP plan.
Some of Sheffield’s students pursue dental school, too. One former THS student is currently a pre-dental student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and two current students also aspire to earn dental degrees.
Derriona Parker plans to earn a bachelor’s degree to become a hygienist, with the eventual goal of becoming a dentist. Tran plans to major in biomedical sciences before pursuing dental school, ultimately hoping to become an orthodontist.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to be either in medical or dental,” says Tran. “Going into this dental program really solidified that I want to be in the dental system.”
The internship opportunity sets up THS dental assisting students for success, but Sheffield’s impact is also evident.
“She basically prepares you to know exactly what you’ll need to be a Certified Dental Assistant,” says Adkins. “But she’ll also teach you responsibilities like showing up to your job on time.”
Sheffield also prepares students to enter the workforce, helping them write resumes and apply for jobs. Due to her decades of experience in dentistry, she has gotten to know many professionals in the Mobile area, which has helped her connect students with job opportunities after graduation. Some graduates have even returned to the classroom as guest speakers.
She shares: “What I’m really most proud of is the students and seeing them bloom in the program, seeing them succeed, seeing them go out and be responsible, get a job, and move on to dental assisting, hygiene, dentistry, or whatever they’d like to do — and just knowing that I had a small part in that.”