Has the teaching bug bit you? Carefully deliberate a return to school as a dental hygiene educator

Jannette Whisenhunt, RDH, offers advice for hygienists interested in teaching as a dental hygiene educator.

Apr 1st, 2017
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By Jannette Whisenhunt RDH, BS, MEd, PhD

I received a very sweet email last month from a fellow hygiene instructor who has been teaching for three years - Sherri Kurtz, RDH, BS, (and soon to be MSDH) - as an instructor at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y. It was a pleasure to learn a little about what motivated her to get started in her teaching career. Like many hygienists who begin in clinical practice, you may never think about teaching.

Sherri loved her patients: “The great working hours and making a difference in my patients’ lives . . .” It is hard to leave a practice where you start to feel like family, but for many of us, something draws us to education that we just can’t shake. Many hygienists start out teaching part-time or doing clinical teaching only, and that’s where the teaching bug bites! As Sherri told me her story of how she got started, I was glad to see that the passion for good teaching is still around.

Going back to school is something that you need to think through carefully before you do it. You remember how hard hygiene school was when you went through it the first time? Going back to get your bachelor’s or even your master’s degree is not going to be easy either. It is expensive, and you will put yourself in financial debt again. Are you ready for that? How are you going to find time to take the courses? Even online courses are time-consuming.

One big question you need to ask yourself is what will you do with your degree if you get it? Having a plan of what you can do with your degree is important to think through. Do you want to teach only at a dental hygiene program or would you be interested in corporate education? You can always search the internet to see what is available that you can do with an additional degree. This may help you narrow down your interests and give you a good idea of what is available.

Do you have a solid support system at home? I would never have been able to make it through graduate school if it weren’t for my husband who took over the mom duties when I needed him. You can’t do it all by yourself; you need a support system to help you through. There will be those tough days when a paper is due; you will have two chapters to read by tomorrow; and there will be a test around the corner. And oh, yeah, who is going to cook supper? There will be days when you are stressed and wonder what you are doing back in school. You will wonder if it is all worth it. It’s not all happy and fun getting through the day-to-day stuff!

I hope I have not discouraged you. But if I have, then maybe going back to school is not right for you. You have to want to go back to school for you! It has to be worth it to you. If I did not discourage you, then you have been bitten by the teaching bug! It is definitely not for everyone, and that is OK too.

Like Sherri told me in her e-mail, “I love seeing the change from the first semester and learning instrumentation to senior clinic. I feel empowered when a student makes that connection.”

There is something special about teaching, and I am glad to say that I still love it after teaching for 30 years! Our students become our colleagues, and when we see them at meetings years later, it is great to know that our teaching helped them get a career and fulfill their dream of becoming a dental hygienist.

The academic world of dental hygiene instructors needs some new hygienists who are ready to take on the next generation of students. There are many of us, like me, who are looking at retirement before too long. We need some excited, new people to take over and continue the legacy. Dental hygiene has been my life and I will always love it. It has been a great career for me.

When I started out in 1979 practicing in my first office, I never thought once about teaching. It wasn’t until nine years later that I had the opportunity to teach. At that time, I was looking for “something more.” I am so glad I found it! Teaching has been a blessing for me and I truly love it.

I am excited to talk to other hygienists who think teaching might be for them too. So, for those of you who may be thinking about going back to school for another degree, I encourage you to go for it and reach for all you can do. It will not be easy, but anything that is worth having is worth working hard for! Happy scaling and studying!RDH

Jannette Whisenhunt, RDH, BS, MEd, PhD, is the Department Chair of Dental Education at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C. Dr. Whisenhunt has taught since 1987 in the dental hygiene and dental assisting curricula. She has a love for students and served as the state student advisor for nine years and has won the student Advisor of the Year award from ADHA in the past. Her teaching interests are in oral cancer, ethics, infection control, emergencies and orofacial anatomy. Dr. Whisenhunt also has a small continuing education business where she provides CE courses for dental practices and local associations. She can be reached at jwhisenhunt@forsythtech.edu.

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