Decide What To Be and Go Be It

I graduated high school in the summer of 1997.

I did really well in high school and knew I wanted to go to college, but according to my parents, I was “on my own” to figure that part out. It was also that summer when my mom announced that she was getting remarried and moving. So, not only did I have to figure out how to pay for college, I also had to figure out how NOT to be homeless. My dad was an immigrant who believed in hard work and no excuses, and although he could have paid for me to go to college, he wanted to push me to figure it out on my own.

At that time, I was working at a store making $4.40 an hour. Seems logical that I could secure housing AND pay for college tuition on that salary, doesn’t it?

I was really stressed out.

One night, I grabbed a newspaper and started looking through the classifieds, searching for anything that could possibly pay me more than $4.40 an hour. I read ad after ad and was starting to get worried. I had very little job experience and no skills. I was about to give up when my eyes caught a glimpse of the three most beautiful words I had ever seen, “No Experience Necessary.” Those words were a beacon of hope to my stressed out soul. The ad was for a dental assistant for a general and a pediatric dentist. I knew NOTHING about dentistry, but I remember thinking, “This HAS to pay more than $4.40 an hour. How hard could dental assisting be?” Out of the mouths of babes, you know?

The next day, I dropped off a resumé, and the following day I was back in the office for an interview. I remember feeling excited, yet nervous while waiting in the doctor’s private office to be interviewed. This was going to be the start of my new, independent life! As I waited for the doctor to come in, I couldn’t help but notice a stack of completed applications in front of me. I glanced down at the application on top and saw that an applicant had years of dental experience. My heart sank. I knew nothing about dentistry. Why in the world would these two doctors want to hire me? I wanted to cry. My promise of a new life was beginning to crumble.

I had to get out of there. I started to get up, but didn’t know how I could leave without anyone seeing me. I was trapped. At that moment, the doctor came into the office. Since I was already standing, I shook his hand, smiled, and introduced myself. In an instant, I realized that there was NOTHING I could do to change my work history or knowledge. I quickly resigned myself to the fact that I would not get hired and in that moment, all of my nervousness was gone. My only option was to relax and have fun with the predicament I was in. So, I did. The doctor and I chatted it up, we laughed a bit, and I was able to leave the interview not feeling like the biggest loser in the world. I remember driving home thinking, “It’s too bad I don’t know anything about dentistry, because I got along really well with that doctor.”

Can you believe that the doctor called me THAT night for a second interview? I know; I couldn’t believe it either! I returned a few days later for my second interview and the next thing I knew, I was being offered a dental assisting job! Maybe my new, independent life could begin after all!

The night before my first official day, the doctor called me at home and asked me to be at the office at 8 a.m. for training. I was pretty excited, but really nervous! I was going to learn about the difference between a molar and a canine!

(Have I mentioned that I knew NOTHING about dentistry?)

When I arrived the next morning, the doctor brought me in, showed me around, and introduced me to the other doctor and his assistant. That took about 20 minutes. The first patient was due to arrive in 40 minutes. He took me to the treatment room and told me where I could find instruments and other supplies. That took about 10 minutes. Then we went to the front desk where he showed me the computer and where all the charts were located. Five more minutes ticked by. He grabbed one of those charts and explained tooth surface and how to chart restorative and periodontal findings. I remember looking down at that chart when a bell chimed at the door.

The first patient had arrived. The doctor didn’t have any other assistant. I was it. My training was over. It was time to “go live.” He looked at me and asked, “Ready?”

“Sure!” I lied.

Looking back, I’m not really sure how I made it through that first patient, let alone the whole day. I was so completely unprepared. I don’t know how the doctor didn’t re or murder me. I was a terrible assistant. He also didn’t help my situation much by offering me some additional training with books or videos. I was all on my own. I fumbled my way though day after day after day. Everything I learned was literally on the job training as things happened at work. I felt so inept, so lost, and so frustrated for a very long time. I would go in the bathroom between patients and cry because I didn’t know what I was doing. I hated every second of it. Even though the thought of going to work depressed the heck out of me, I couldn’t quit. My sister and I had just moved into our own place, and she counted on me to pull my own financial weight. I had to stay.

It was a year before I felt comfortable working as a dental assistant.

That was one painful year. As time went by, I was starting to get the hang of it. I started to actually enjoy going to work. I became fascinated with dental disease, with patient behavior, and with the business aspect of dentistry. I was even able to put some money aside to start taking college classes to become a teacher.

Over the next six years, the practice grew and more employees were added. We were quickly outgrowing our space, so the general dentist decided to end his partnership and branch out to a larger space. Even though I already had graduated from college at that point and was doing some teaching, I was still keeping some hours at the dental office. I liked it there too much to leave completely. One day, in 2004, the doctor asked to speak with me privately.

He offered me a promotion: office manager.

I was pleased, but also curious because we had never had an actual office manager before.

“What would my responsibilities be?” I asked him.

“Well, I just want to fix teeth. I want you to do everything else.”

“Everything?” I repeated.

“Yes, and I want you to streamline this office and create systems for things that need them. I want to you to stay on top of staff training. I want you to be a leader in this office–a super star. I want it to run like a well oiled machine. You’re smart enough; you can figure it out.”

This opportunity was something I had secretly dreamed about for a long time. I had a ton of ideas and I couldn’t wait to get started.

Since then, I’ve created new systems and refined old ones. One system that I knew we HAD to work on was to do better for our new employees. Although we had improved in training new employees, we still had a long way to go. The whole training process was something I dreaded because it took so much out of me. There’s so much to teach, where does one start? Spending days hand holding a new front desk employee or an assistant took time away from MY work. I’d come in early and stay late and still fall behind on my own projects. I always felt like a broken record around new employees; I’d answer the same questions over and over and point out the same mistakes multiple times in a day. This frustrating period would last a few months until the new employee learned enough to muddle through the day independently. By the time we reached that point, I’d need a vacation.

A few years ago, we needed to hire a new assistant because one of ours was leaving to start hygiene school. As soon as I received her notice, the acid in my stomach started to rise. I knew what I was in for. It was summer, too, and I started to think of all the beautiful weather I’d miss because of the extra hours I’d have to put in. Dang it!

At home that night, I decided that it was time to revamp our employee training. I recalled my college days when I was studying to be a teacher. That’s when the answer came to me!

If I wanted my employees to be successful AND I wanted to make the training period less stressful for myself, I’d have to DO MORE for my new employees. I know that sounds contradictory, but here’s what I mean.

In order for them to WORK independently, I had to GIVE them the tools to work independently.
I realized that I was the problem. I’d been handling it wrong the whole time. I was basically offering the same type of training I’d received. By not giving them proper training materials, I was teaching them to rely way too much on me, and that was wrong! They needed more.

As a teacher, I wouldn’t have expected my students to ace a test if I hadn’t prepared them properly for it, right? There was only one problem: We didn’t really have any training materials. All we had was an office manual that explained office policies. New employees needed more. Sure, there are some assisting books that exist, but we didn’t have any materials that were specific to our office that I could use. I took myself back to the summer of 1997 and my 40–minute training session. I thought about what could have helped me through that time. I realized that what I needed then, did not exist. I’d just have to create an assistant’s training manual myself. I knew that if our assistants received better training, then they would be more confident in their jobs and that would make the doctor and the patients happy. Not to mention it would make me happy!

Here’s what I did. For every dental procedure, I created the following template: description of procedure, materials and instruments needed, step by step description of the procedure according to the doctor’s specifications, and a photo of the set up. I didn’t stop there. I also created training manual pages for all of our systems (like taking inventory and our lab protocols) and other procedural logistics (like setting up a rubber dam and assembling a tofflemire/ matrix band). By putting all of this together for a new employee, I was now taking the accountability OFF of me and BACK on them. I wouldn’t have to repeat myself multiple times a day because everything was already written out. All I’d have to say is, “Please check your training manual!”

That training manual turned into this Survival Guide.

All new employees now receive an office manual AND Survival Guide training.  They all tell me that they’ve never been given anything like it at other offices and are very appreciative. Also, from a manager’s point of view, a new employee’s learning curve is MUCH shorter with a training manual. I like having new employees who can contribute to the practice on their very first day! All I’ve ever wanted was for our employees not to feel the way I did in 1997. We’ve had a few temps in, too, and it’s SO nice to give them procedural sheets from the manual for set ups and procedures so that I don’t have to take time away from my own work. Our training manual accomplishes everything I ever dreamed of.

Fast forward to present day.

I can’t believe where my dental career has taken me.

We moved to a bigger location yet again a few years ago. We’ve never had a larger team. I’m now a Business Manager. I found dental love and got married. I am so grateful for how this industry has changed me as a person-–made me wiser, and certainly made me tougher.

I’ve also had the fortune of meeting some of dentistry’s most influential pioneers–like Mary Beth Bajornas, my partner in the Survival Guide series.

This Survival Guide is a product of my experiences in dentistry. I have the unique perspective of being an assistant who was thrown into the position and forced to figure it out to present day as a dental office owner who really knows what dental assistants should be doing for a modern practice.

My advice to you?

  • Be a positive force for yourself, your patients, and office.
  • Work WITH your coworkers, not against them.
  • Seek out positive online and local dental communities filled with people who want to do and be better.
  • Don’t give up. There will be lots of good and bad days. The true measure of a superhero is how he/she can make it through the bad days. As much as I wanted to quit back then, I stuck with it. The key to a long and successful career it to HAVE a long and successful career by sticking with it.
  • Never stop learning. Take advantage of the opportunities for personal and professional development in dentistry. Decide what to be and go be it. In my wildest dreams, I never would have imagined that I am where I am today. I was given opportunity to learn and tobe more, and I never turned that down.
  • Give back one day. Mary Beth and I created the Survival Guide because we’ve learned enough to share with others to make their lives easier. The teacher in me needed to create this to satisfy my soul. It’s important to share with others what you’ve learned so they can be better, too.

I am so blessed. I am nowhere near where I thought I would be, but I’m EXACTLY where I should be. I have dentistry to thank for that.

One final word. At some point, you will find yourself in a tough situation that you will want to escape from. Try to make the best of it and have fun. You might be surprised at the results.