I know from experience that your instructors all watched you go from “How do you put on gloves?” to “How do you hold this instrument … and what is it for again?” to those stressful skill evaluations where you had to demonstrate things such how to turn the power on the chair, to learning “clock positions,” to that day where “We get to work on each other,” and eventually “It’s the first patient day!”
Dental hygiene school is such an adventure that no one really understands until they live through it. Now you have practiced so many skills for hours and hours and you have passed boards that tell the world that it is safe to put you out in the public. As you prepare to do this, I want to leave you with some nuggets of advice that I hope you will always take with you.
Give back and serve others. You have a gift and a skill that people need. You will never find more satisfaction than helping someone in need. Of course, I am referring to your dental hygiene skills, but this really goes far beyond that. It can include anything such as volunteering in a classroom, helping in a soup kitchen, working toward a cause you believe in.
Be well. Take care of you—practice good ergonomics, get a massage when you need it, stretch, and stay hydrated! Staying well includes physical, spiritual, social, mental, and emotional health. You must take care of yourself so that you can take care of your patients and others in your life.
Do not compromise when it comes to these things: infection control, documentation, sharp instruments, oral cancer screening, wearing loupes, power instrumentation, and providing the highest standard of care. Do your best in each situation in front of you. Never lower your standards.
If you land in an office where your standards are being compromised, remember that not everyone finds the perfect office on the first try. I have seen hygienists problem solve and improve bad office situations, and I have seen hygienists decide it is time to move on to a different office.
Please don’t be a diva. You are part of a team. Be patient with your coworkers. Be open and honest. Communicate with them. Stay away from office drama and certainly do not be the source of it. You will enjoy your job much more; trust me. Find a mentor that you can confide in and trust.
You will meet dental hygienists who do not enjoy their work any longer. I believe that you can find that in any field of work. If you hear negative stories, remember that is their journey and their story, not yours. Ask them questions to see if you can learn something from their experiences.
Be a lifelong learner. You have learned so much—but guess what?! Learning does not stop when you graduate. Keep up with changes in dental hygiene, gain emotional intelligence, evolve professionally, develop yourself, maybe even learn something new. Although it feels like it right now, life is not only about dental hygiene!
Be humble and gracious. Admit when you are wrong. Give grace to others when they are wrong. It is not always easy, but just keep working on it! As cliché as it sounds, just be kind.
Remember that you do not merely treat teeth—you treat people. Please, please remember that. Looking back on my 28 years in private practice, I can say the best thing about being a dental hygienist is the relationship that you make with patients. These people touch your life and make a difference. You may never know how you impact your patients, but you certainly do. You will have many meaningful stories to tell as you navigate your dental hygiene career.
Always fight for what you believe is ethically right for your patients. Remember that grumpy patient is probably scared. If a patient tells you that something hurts, believe them. Accept them, don’t judge them, listen to them, advocate for them. Be kind, especially to those patients that take every ounce of your energy to be kind. And believe me, there will be plenty of them.
Be a critical thinker! Your brain is full of knowledge. You will have to make all kinds of educated decisions based on that knowledge every single day, over and over. Trust yourself. It is OK to ask for help or other opinions.
Not all patients will be satisfied despite your best efforts. That can be tough to take, especially when you are a new hygienist. Take criticism as a learning opportunity. This is one of the most difficult things you will ever do. But you might just look back and see how much you grow from those “dissatisfied patients.”
You are still learning. Be confident. Learn from your mistakes. We all make them. You have so much ahead of you. In the book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell talks about the “10,000 rule.”1 It takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. For a full-time dental hygienist, that equals at least five years. Do I tell you this to discourage you? NO! I wish someone would have told me back in 1985 that the first few years out of hygiene school I would learn even more than I learned in school. I tell you this so you will be patient with yourself and to excite you about all that is ahead in your experience as a new dental hygienist! You are about to start a wonderful new journey. Welcome to the profession!
1. Gladwell M. Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown and Company; 2008.
Paula Hendrix, MEd, EPDH, is an associate professor and program director for the dental hygiene program at Oregon Institute of Technology (Salem). She practiced dental hygiene for over 28 years and has been an educator for 13 years. She teaches preclinical labs, periodontology, dental anatomy, dental practice management, and pain management/anesthesia. She serves on advisory boards for a local dental assisting program and for a dental therapy pilot project. She enjoys working with students of all levels and loves to help them succeed as they transition from school to career.