Educators inspire future dental assistants

Dental careers instructor Rita Gordon

Educating the next generation of dental assistants is no small responsibility — and that’s why it’s so fulfilling when instructors see their students succeed. 

Much like parents seeing their children reach various milestones, teachers take enormous pride in watching students grow over the course of a year and go on to become successful professionals in dental assisting and beyond. 

For Rita Gordon, CDA, LDA, RF, RDH, M.D.H. — a dental careers instructor at NorthEast Metro 916 Intermediate School in White Bear Lake, Minnesota — some of the proudest moments of her 12-year teaching career were ones she was initially afraid would never come. 

Gordon remembers a third-semester dental assisting student she taught during her time at Century College; the student was initially so afraid to fail that she wouldn’t speak or even make eye contact. On the last day of class, she couldn’t come into the classroom — but not because she was fearful or anxious anymore. She didn’t want to say goodbye. 

“You have no idea how much you’ve helped me grow from not being sure that I really want to do this to knowing now that I am sure that I want to do this,” Gordon recalls the student saying to her on the last day of class. 

Today, that student is the lead dental assistant at the office where she works. It’s just one of numerous examples of the positive impact dental assisting educators can have on their students. 

Linda Pettine, CDA, RDH, M.Ed., has been a dental assisting instructor for 24 years and has seen similar success stories with her students at Diman Regional Vocational High School in Fall River, Massachusetts. 

“It’s exciting to see students who struggled with the material at first now managing practices,” says Pettine. 

Pettine had such an impact on one former student — Priscilla Wicks, CDA, RDH, B.S. — that Wicks returned to Diman in March 2017 to become her teaching partner. Wicks was among the first students Pettine taught at the beginning of her career. 

“At first, it felt like an adjustment, especially when [Pettine] called me ‘Mrs. Wicks’ in front of my students,” Wicks says with a laugh. “But she was my mentor back when I was a student, and now she’s my mentor as a new teacher. She’s been super helpful.” 

“It’s easy for me — not so easy for her,” Pettine jokes. “I think she was nervous [at first], but I don’t think she’s nervous anymore. We’ve grown together as colleagues. I was excited to see her come along.” 

Karen Cirillo, CDA, RDA, B.S. — a fellow dental assisting instructor at Diman — gets her teeth cleaned by a former student who is now a hygienist. Cirillo takes pride in that, as her goal is to help develop capable dental professionals who will support the Fall River community. 

“Our names are behind these students,” says Cirillo. “All the dentists in this community know us in Fall River. We really want to make sure that these students are good dental assistants.” 

Giving back to the next generation 

Gordon, Pettine, Wicks and Cirillo have seen their high-school students move on to become not only successful dental assistants but also dental hygienists, office managers and dentists. One of Gordon’s previous students is even an associate university dean. 

These moments can be particularly special for dental assisting educators, many of whom are current or former dental assistants or hygienists themselves. 

“I like giving back my knowledge, and sharing what I know,” says Pettine. “I like to see people grow, and it’s exciting to see people be successful and know that they were my students. Practicing dental hygiene still, I go into offices and I see people who were my students, and it’s very rewarding.” 

Cirillo, who worked as a dental assistant for over three decades before transitioning to education, agrees. 

“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and what’s so rewarding is coming here and teaching these young students all I know,” says Cirillo, who teaches freshmen. 

Cirillo and Wicks are also involved with SkillsUSA Championships, which are career competition events showcasing top students in the nation. Several of their students have won medals at the events. One of Cirillo’s dental assisting students, who is now finishing his last year of dental school, won a gold medal at SkillsUSA three years in a row. 

Wicks, who participated in SkillsUSA when she was a student, says it’s even more rewarding to see her students succeed than it was to win medals herself. 

“It’s like watching your child be good at something,” Wicks elaborates. 

Managing the challenges 

A lot of hard work goes into these rewarding moments, however — for both students and teachers. 

Students face a challenging curriculum, from preparing for DANB exams to learning about various dental terminology, instruments, infection control and CPR. Dental assisting educators must also help students develop the secondary skills needed to excel, such as communication and professionalism. 

Each age group also comes with unique challenges. 

Freshmen typically take some time to adjust to high school, says Cirillo. It’s become more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic with online learning and classroom limitations. 

“I think the last time it was a real, normal year for them was sixth grade, if you think about it,” says Cirillo. “So, in September, I did find teaching then to be a bit challenging. Now, they seem to have learned and adjusted to high school. But it was really, really hard at first.” 

Sophomores at Diman have to take their first DANB exam, which comes with a level of learning and studying they aren’t used to, says Pettine. 

“They haven’t seen anything like it, and it takes a while to mold them to realize how important it is to study,” explains Pettine. 

For Gordon’s seniors, there’s uncertainty about their future and whether dental assisting is the right career path for them. 

“Dental assisting is not promoted the same as dental hygiene in high schools,” says Gordon. “A lot of students look at dental assisting as substandard, like, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t even need to do that. I just want to be a hygienist.’ So, I strive to help them see that dental assisting is actually a standalone career. You can be a dental assistant and be successful in dentistry.” 

Gordon adds: “The demand for dental assistants would never go away because we’re needed, we’re wanted, we are a valuable asset in a dental office, and you can truly be a successful dental assistant in the right environment with the right training and the right office to work. I can’t see a world without dental assistants.” 

When students overcome those hurdles and go on to find success in the field, it’s fulfilling not only for them — but also for the teachers who guided them along the way. 

“It’s hard to describe what it feels like when former students come back and tell you, ‘You’re the reason that I’m doing this,’” says Gordon. “It puts tears in your eyes knowing that you made an impact on someone."