by Donna Brogan, RDH
The role of mentor can be called many things: coach, counsel, advisor, role model. Think of those who have inspired you in your personal life, your education, and your career. They were worthy of following.
As a child, I loved having my teeth cleaned. I would crawl up in the chair, kick my shoes off, and open wide. Not too many children dream of putting their fingers in people’s mouths for a living. I guess I was destined to be a dental hygienist. I worked my way through college as a dental assistant and was lucky enough to have several strong women guide me along the path to being the hygienist and person I am today. I wonder how many of them realize the impact they had on me and others they have touched.
Meeting With A Mentor
Recently, while presenting a continuing-education program in Mesa, Ariz., I had the chance to experience a lovely reunion. Kim Lovell, a hygienist of 16 years, repeatedly told another hygienist that she looked familiar. The younger hygienist, Michelle Gross, did not recognize her. Kim continued to insist they knew each other and after a few minutes Michelle saw a familiar name on the nametag. You can imagine the excitement that ensued when Michelle realized this was her childhood hygienist. Michelle proceeded to tell Kim she was the inspiration behind her choice in careers. The following is Michelle’s story.
“As a child, Kim was my hygienist; I met her when I was 14 years old. She was always so kind and genuinely interested in my family’s well-being. When I was about 16, my strengths in science became evident. I think Kim could tell that I had a detail-oriented personality and was very studious, so with great enthusiasm she recommended dental hygiene as a profession. During every recall appointment, until I was about 18, Kim persisted in educating me on the fabulous career of dental hygiene. Then, due to her husband’s job promotion, Kim moved out of state and was no longer my hygienist.”
Enthusiasm For Dental Hygiene
During college, Michelle considered several careers within the health-care industry, but she always kept Kim’s enthusiasm for dental hygiene in mind. She applied and was accepted at Parkland College in Champaign, Ill. She graduated in 2000 and moved back home to Arizona.
Michelle reports, “I became a dental hygienist due to Kim’s diligence and encouragement.”
And in a fairly short time, what a great hygienist she has become! Michelle is truly worthy to be called a mentor herself. A member of the ADHA, she serves as secretary for the East Valley Dental Hygiene Society, she was on faculty at Phoenix College, and is currently teaching at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health.
“I have also discovered that I have a heart for service and enjoy working as an Affiliated Practice Dental Hygienist serving the underserved children of Chicanos Por La Causa, a Head Start program in Arizona. I thank the Lord for angels like Kim. She has made such a positive impact on my life. I hope I make a similar positive impact on my chosen profession and the patients I serve.”
Serving Her Profession Well
Kim wasn’t just doing her job; she was serving her profession well. She truly loves her career choice and wants to share that joy and satisfaction with future generations. Kim left that evening from her reunion with Michelle in tears, the good kind.
“After 16 years of trying to persuade people to floss, or at the very least, ‘toothpick,’ I never dreamed that my love for this profession would inspire another young woman to go in the same direction. I remember Michelle as a very bright, energetic, focused, young patient who was looking for a flexible career that she could be proud of. She, like me, had wanted to go into medicine, perhaps a more lucrative and prestigious career. She also had the same desires to one day marry and perhaps have a family. I knew how flexible and lucrative hygiene had been for me, as I was a young mother at the time, and so I thought it might be a good direction for her. I suggested that she would make a good hygienist, but I never dreamed she would be as involved as she is in the profession.
“She is really making a difference for me and other hygienists through her involvement in our local association. I feel proud of her and a little proud of myself for recognizing the characteristics that create an impressive and ‘polished’ hygienist (no pun intended). Seeing Michelle and how accomplished she is as a hygienist has encouraged and confirmed for me that I made the right decision in 1989 to apply for hygiene school. I especially made the right decision to share my enthusiasm about the profession of dental hygiene with her. Michelle just needed direction, an opinion from someone who knew. She accomplished the rest on her own.”
Touching Lives As Role Models
Being a mentor may sound like something that other people do, but in our profession we have the ability to touch so many lives. Consider the young patients you saw over the summer. Think of the conversations you had about their classes in school, future careers, and responsibilities. Many young people begin exploring career options as early as junior high. Do you exude professionalism at work that would make others want to be like you? Dental hygienists are role models. Whether by unknowingly being involved in role modeling or by taking part in a structured mentoring relationship, dental hygienists can be effective leaders.
Riverside Community College in Moreno Valley, Calif., has an interesting program put in place by its director, Donna Lesser. The students are required to “shadow” a dental hygienist who practices in a nontraditional setting. The students have worked with faculty members, sales representatives, speakers, and key opinion leaders in dentistry.
According to Ms. Lesser, “We want to promote the knowledge and understanding of all aspects of dental hygiene, not just clinical practice. Our goal is threefold: 1) for students to get a hands-on look at dental hygienists in different roles, 2) to understand the need for advanced degrees to expand their career opportunities, and 3) to broaden their thoughts and possibly their long-term career goals.”
Purposeful mentoring relationships are two-sided. Some benefits for the mentee include: support for professional growth and career development, and the realization of goals. Most people don’t stop to think about strategies for growth or setting goals unless they specifically take time to contemplate and write them down. A purposeful mentoring relationship fosters that thought process. In dental hygiene especially, socialization into the profession is a real advantage. Many young hygienists need guidance to enter the world of membership and to meet the leaders in their community. Networking does not come naturally to many people. The mentor can be invaluable in bringing new members to the local and national organizations. The future of any career, business, or organization depends upon supporting and nurturing new leadership and fresh ideas.
Mentors benefit as well; they often report increased satisfaction personally and professionally. It is a way to give back to your profession and to be renewed by sharing your knowledge with the next generation. Being a mentor can be a real boost to your confidence as well as job morale. If you are in an academic or corporate environment, it may even increase the chances of promotion.
Trust and Mutual Respect
Mentoring relationships must be based on trust and mutual respect between the mentor and the mentee. Noel Paschke, RDH, MS, senior manager of North American Professional Education and Academic Relations for Philips Sonicare, has a mentor outside of dental hygiene. Noel graduated from the University of Maryland dental hygiene program. She practiced clinically and taught at her alma mater before moving into the corporate world. Hygienists have many characteristics that make them good corporate employees. After years in the industry, Noel met and befriended executive businesswoman Diana Friedman. Anyone who has met Diana knows what an inspiration she is. Diana just thinks differently than most people. Noel recognized this relationship to be a growth opportunity and asked Diana to mentor her. She gave permission to review, critique, and give feedback all with the promise of never taking anything personally. Safety is a must in a mentor relationship. The mentor and mentored must always feel safe to share suggestions and accept feedback and guidance without becoming defensive.
Noel explains what she received from this arrangement: “My relationship with Diana rewired my brain to be a strategic leader. The change is beyond anything I could have comprehended at the time I asked for her help. Diana has the ability to see potential in people and develop it. It has helped me in my day-to-day life and in my business dealings and relationships. I’ve even had people comment on how my thought processes have changed.”
Help During The Dark Times
I remember my third semester at the University of Oklahoma dental hygiene program. This was probably the darkest time of my career even though I had not yet graduated. I was questioning my decision to be a hygienist. I had decided - while I loved the patients - that maybe practicing hygiene was not for me. One of my clinical instructors, Jane Bowers, PhD, changed everything for me. Jane was everything I wanted to be when I grew up - classy, well-rounded, funny, even-tempered, lighthearted, and with a great style to boot! I had no idea at the time what an impact she would have on my future.
I clung to Jane because she seemed to understand me more than anyone else at the time. I listened intently to her recommendations in clinic and vowed never to become uptight or a type A personality (like so many we know). I graduated and stayed in touch with Jane over the years. To everyone’s disbelief, I am now a clinical instructor in the very program I struggled to love at the time. I work side by side with one of the most important figures in my life. Jane is now co-director and continues to be a mentor for me to this day. I strive to have her empathy with patients and students alike. I desire to be half the teacher she is. She even encourages me to continue my education, though I doubt I will ever obtain my PhD. Jane has made me aspire to be worthy - worthy of someone someday speaking of me in this manner.
Called By Many Names
The role of mentor can be called many things: coach, counsel, advisor, role model. Think of those who have inspired you in your personal life, your education, and your career. They were worthy of following. I challenge all of you - aspire to be worthy.
About the Author
Donna Brogan, RDH, BS, is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma Dental Hygiene program where she is currently a clinical instructor. She has thirteen years experience in private practice. She is an active member in the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and is the Editor for the Oklahoma Dental Hygienists’ Association. She is also a professional educator for Philips Oral Healthcare - the company is a co-sponsor along with RDH magazine of the Mentor of the Year award.