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Hygienist sparks high school students interest in dentistry as a possible career

Feb. 1, 1998
When Barbara Rogers entered college at Saint Louis University, she was uncertain about her future and her career choice. Thanks to guidance from her mother, she discovered and pursued dental hygiene, transferring to St. Louis Community College at Forest Park for her associate`s degree.

Kristin Baird Rattini

When Barbara Rogers entered college at Saint Louis University, she was uncertain about her future and her career choice. Thanks to guidance from her mother, she discovered and pursued dental hygiene, transferring to St. Louis Community College at Forest Park for her associate`s degree.

Now, 24 years since plotting her own career path, Rogers is helping a new generation of undecided teens plot theirs by introducing them to the dental field. Rogers teaches a two-year dental assistant program at West Technical High School, a vocational school in the St. Louis, Mo., area that provides hands-on training in 14 career fields. Her class takes students through all aspects of the job, from sterilization and chairside procedures to instruction of oral health care on volunteer patients.

Rogers had never planned to make the jump from dental hygiene to teaching. When the high school asked her to serve on the program`s advisory board to help develop its curriculum five years ago, she was working at an office in suburban Chesterfield that she truly enjoyed. But when the advisory committee sought out applicants for the new position, school administrators asked Rogers to apply.

"I thought, `That might be interesting to do,`" she says. "I applied, not really thinking I`d get it. I thought they`d hire someone who had taught before. But they chose me."

Patience instead of patients

As with any new teacher, Rogers had a tough time during the first year. School had started before she was hired, so she didn`t begin teaching until October 1993.

"I was a nervous wreck," she says. "I didn`t know what to expect. I could only think back to when I was a student in class and here, all of a sudden, I`m the teacher."

No classroom had been assigned to her, so Rogers met with her six students in a conference room. "We didn`t have textbooks, equipment or anything," she says. "It was hard because, when I was talking about things, they just couldn`t visualize."

Her situation improved dramatically over the summer of 1994. The school transformed an old cosmetology classroom into a functioning dental office, with three operatories, an X-ray room, a sterilization area with autoclaves and other equipment and a fully stocked supply room. Rogers was more prepared as well. She attended a two-week institute for new teachers at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Since then, both Rogers and her students have been on a learning curve. "Teaching juniors and seniors in high school has been a real education for me," she says. "I think I`ve learned more than they have."

Most of her two-dozen students live in urban St. Louis; many come from broken homes and haven`t been pressed to achieve in school. Rogers` challenge is to spark their enthusiasm and keep it burning through the two-and-a-half hour class period. "The students we get aren`t the keep-their-nose-in-the-book type. They get distracted easier," she says.

Rogers usually lectures for only the first half-hour of class. It`s more of an open discussion; she frequently calls on students to fill in the blanks on the blackboard and provide the next answer before moving on. Her students often chime in with "war stories," personal experiences of their own that relate to the topic at hand. During a lesson about crowns, Rogers asked Carlton, a senior, to tell the class about his gold crowns. He`d earlier confided that he was about to have them removed. Carlton`s tale opened the floodgates to other stories about someone`s sister or another girl`s father.

"These real-life experiences really help keep their interest," says Rogers. "If I just stood there and talked, they`d get bored."

During the remainder of each class hour, students scurry about the classroom to accomplish the day`s objectives. The two-year course is broken down into nine sections: infection control and hazards management; general health; emergency procedures; preventive dental-assisting procedures; chairside assistance; dental specialties; dental laboratory procedures; radiographic procedures; and dental office procedures. The students must accomplish specific tasks each day toward the completion of each section. Rogers watches them in action and signs off that they`ve performed the task correctly.

For some of the tasks, Rogers has borrowed a few tricks that her teachers used while she was studying dental hygiene. For example, while the dental assistant students don`t give injections, they must learn to prepare syringes and carpules of novocaine for the dental setup. To get a feel for the syringe, they grapple with the needle in one hand and either an orange or chicken breast in the other. "We can`t use real patients, so the texture of the orange and chicken resembles flesh," she says. Other lessons are boosted by extra catalogs from supply companies and X-rays that dentists have donated.

"I`m always looking for new ideas and for information," she says. "Anything to help the students remember."

Each day`s tasks differ from the morning class, which has juniors just starting the program, and the afternoon class, with the old-hat seniors. On one given day early in the school year, the afternoon class was required to take two X-rays of their choice - either periapical or bitewing - and chart 10 features on both an anatomical and geometric chart. However, much more was going on than what was required on paper. In the lab area, several students practiced molding impressions. In another corner, two girls practiced a fissure sealant.

Rogers held sway over the flurry of activity, urging on a stray student or two who were slow to get started. "I always have one who is a procrastinator, who tends to be lazy or just doesn`t have enough self-confidence," she says. "I just have to prod them along. Sometimes I`ll say, `It`s your turn today.` And then when they do it, they`re really proud of themselves. It gives them a good feeling to get the job done."

Go, team, go! All the way to state!

While the students usually practice their newfound skills on each other or on models, Rogers also opens up the office to other students at West Tech for free charting and oral-health instruction once a semester. Suddenly, the dental assistant students not only have to be technically precise, but also must use the chairside manners that often fall to the wayside with their classmates. "It`s fun for them to see what it`s like to work on other people," Rogers says. "They`re much more relaxed when they`re with their friends, and they need to practice those skills because they won`t know most of the patients when they work at an office."

The students also sharpen their skills by entering the state competition of the Vocation Industrial Club of America (VICA). Rogers` students compete first in a classroom contest, judged by a professional hygienist; the top three then go on to the state level. Last year, Joe, a 1997 graduate, won first in state in the dental assistant competition. As a male, Joe also was recognized for being a nontraditional student. He is the first of Rogers` students to plot his career path for dental school.

Perhaps the truest test of the students` skills comes during the last semester of the program when the seniors intern at real dental offices. Rogers sometimes "cold-calls" dentists whose offices are in a convenient location for the students.

"When we call out of the blue, a lot of them have heard of internship programs before," she says. "I explain that these are high school students and they can be pretty intimidated at first. But I wouldn`t send out a student if I thought the student couldn`t do the job. The dentists are always very kind to them. It`s a great learning experience."

Helping young minds find their way

Upon graduating from the program, the students have the skills to work as dental assistants, but not the certification. The American Dental Association will not certify high school courses. So, the students can earn the CDA title after their names with two years of work experience upon completion of the exam.

However, the broad scope of the program has sparked students` interest in other aspects of the dental profession. Melissa, a 1997 graduate, preferred the paperwork of office administration. Steve, a current senior, hopes to become a dental technician. Carlton, the senior with the gold crowns, has aspirations of becoming an X-ray technician.

Rogers heartily encourages all of her students to continue their studies in college. She agrees that a dental assistant`s role is distinct from that of a hygienist and encourages her students to aim their sights higher.

"It`s important to go through a certified program and become a hygienist. You need the extra two years and extra training to be knowledgeable enough on tasks like scaling teeth and to do it correctly."

Rogers herself has gone back to school, earning a bachelor`s degree in work-force education and development from Southern Illinois University. She considered a bachelor`s degree in dental hygiene, but her desired program was in Kansas City, too far from her husband, Dick, and children, Ryan, 16 and Julie, 11.

"Since I`m a vocational teacher, I was hired because I was a hygienist, not because of my teaching experience," she explains. "I needed the extra teaching background and more of an educational approach."

Besides, her kids love the schedule she`s on at school. "They think it`s great I have the summers off. But the schedule works out nice for me. My day ends at 2:45 p.m., so I can pick up my daughter`s carpool."

Rogers realizes that not all her students will choose the dental field as their own. Most of them do end up taking some college classes, but the competition for a slot in the local dental hygiene program is fierce, and many don`t want to give up the money they make once they start working. So, Rogers measures her success in different ways. "I say upfront: `I don`t know if this is what you`re going to do, but I hope you learn some things along the way.`"

If anything, they learn about themselves and gain more self-confidence. At every turn, Rogers tries diligently to motivate students and help them learn more about themselves. She knows what it`s like to be uncertain about the future. So, inspirational postcards and signs adorn the room, right next to placards about proper brushing and disorders of the teeth and jaw.

One of the posters, displayed prominently on its own, says it all: "When you believe in yourself, anything is possible."

Kristin Baird Rattini is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Mo.

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Barbara Rogers, center, guides two St. Louis-area high school students through an impression procedure.