The Team

Stronger together: Teamwork in the dental hygiene program

Aug. 15, 2013
It’s not your imagination: dental hygiene school is tough.

By Susan Hopkins, RDH
August 22, 2013

"'Hygiene' on three"

It’s not your imagination: dental hygiene school is tough. Acceptance into your program was a trial in itself. You navigated impacted perquisite courses. You aced them, in fact, in order to stand out in the large pool of qualified applicants. You knuckled down, looked out for yourself, and stayed competitive.

Hygienists strongly believe there are too many hygiene schools, too few jobs

Now that you’re in the program, you have new worries. Staying on top of the reading is not enough. You have to learn to handle the scrutiny of instructors, learn to handle direct instruction and sometimes less-than-constructive criticism with grace. You have to muster the confidence to learn something one day and implement it the next. The demands disrupt your normal routine and require more flexibility and creative compromises than you ever expected. Finally, you face the overwhelming task of finding the patients you need to meet clinical requirements, not to mention that perfect patient to take to your clinical board exams. Feel stressed? Of course you do.

How to stay on top of your game as a dental hygiene student

Stress can do funny things to a person. It can make you panicky, anxious, and tense. Moreover, stress puts you into survival mode, where your instincts look out for yourself, perhaps at the expense of others. But here is a secret for not only surviving, but also excelling in dental hygiene school: it is not all about you, and you cannot do it alone. Your classmates are your best allies. Together you are stronger; the more you work together to help each other navigate the rough terrain ahead, the more successful you will be – on tests, in clinic, with finding patients, and in your future workplace. You will spend more time with your classmates than you will with your family and loved ones for these years in your hygiene program. You have something to learn from each person there.

Here are a few ideas to foster teamwork, boost morale, and gain invaluable skills that will serve you throughout your career.

Set goals as a group
Decide on a small set of goals for the class. Maybe it is 100% pass rate on the national board exam or a “No man left behind” policy for clinical requirements. Maybe a goal is to take time out to celebrate once a month to acknowledge and appreciate your hard work and progress. Creating goals together creates bonds within the group. Making everyone a stakeholder increases a sense of ownership and commitment. Goal setting is important in the workplace too. In an interview, you can set yourself apart from other candidates by discussing how you and your classmates increased motivation and productivity through teamwork and positive reinforcement. That is the kind of employee people want in their practice.

Identify and encourage others’ talents
Collaborate to find your classmates’ talents. Honor the skills and qualities people bring to the group. Maybe someone speaks a second language and can help with translation in the clinic from time to time. Perhaps people who excel in certain subjects would be willing to participate in study groups before tests. Maybe someone simply has a grounded, stable demeanor, and having them in the classroom or clinic brings a sense of calm to the environment. Encourage the team to share skillsets and knowledge so that everyone feels they have something to contribute. This effort will serve you throughout your career as learn to foster a team spirit and acknowledge colleagues in the workplace.

Create a group contract for conflict
Conflict happens. In a stressful environment, you are bound to have a confrontation with a peer. If you can agree as a group on general guidelines for healthy conflict resolution, you will encourage more honest and effective communication. For example, an agreement to speak directly, respectfully, and calmly to a person rather than discussing an issue with a third party diffuses resentment and gossip. Remember that conflict can be intimidating for people, so a group consensus on respect and honesty makes conflict and confrontation feel safer. When you foster a good team dynamic you will find that people are more inclined to resolve problems constructively.

Susan Hopkins, RDH, graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in English. She later received her A.A. in Dental Hygiene from Chabot College in Hayward, Calif. She has practiced dental hygiene in California and Oregon since 2009. Currently, she works as a technical writer in San Francisco and stays active within the community by volunteering at local dental clinics and maintaining the web presence for her local component.