Dorin Raffi, RDH, MEd, a California board-certified dental hygienist who works full time as a clinical dental hygienist in Berlin, Germany, reflects on the challenges she faced and how she overcame them during her time as a new dental hygiene educator.
The first time I thought about teaching was during my last semester in the Dental Hygiene Program at New York University (NYU) School of Dentistry when my mentor asked if I’d like to student teach. “But I’m a student myself,” I replied. Her response: “What better way to learn than to teach?” She was right. I truly had to become a better student before I became a better teacher; I could not teach what I did not know.
Student teaching was one of the most exciting and rewarding academic activities during my school years. It made me a better clinician and gave me a head start in helping others—both students and patients—before starting my clinical career. It also helped me grow as a person.
After graduation, I worked as a full-time clinician before graduating from Pepperdine University with a Master of Education degree. I thought I had all I needed to know as an educator. I was in for a rude awakening!
GOING BEYOND CURRICULUM
Just like clinical practice, learning how to teach happens when you start to work. I started as an educator at West Coast University, and later at West Los Angeles College in Culver City, California. Teaching, I learned, was a lot more than just designing a curriculum and showing up to teach it. My curriculum and “tips and pearls” were great, but not enough.
As a young educator, I understood how a trusting student-teacher bond helped to cultivate the passion of any student because my passion for the art and science of dental hygiene grew stronger because of my teachers at NYU. But what I didn’t understand was that building those bonds to help motivate students is the most challenging task.
Establishing a trusted student-teacher bond is not easy, as many factors come into play and setting boundaries is a must. I wanted to be friendly and close with my students, but not necessarily be their friend. I wanted my students to respect me, and to be taken seriously as a young educator, but I did not want them to be intimidated by the course or by me. Most of all, I wanted them to know that I truly cared!
LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES
As we all know, teacher reputations spread like wildfire among students. At some point, I had developed the reputation of being “the most difficult teacher.” I wondered was this a compliment or constructive criticism about something I needed to change? My experience as a student reminded me that we loved those teachers who were easy on us but we learned most from those who pushed us. I decided it was a compliment to be “difficult” so long as I was not perceived as “harsh.”
What helped me become a better teacher was listening to my students and learning from them. I was lucky to work in institutions where anonymous feedback from students was encouraged at the end of each term. Every time I received my reviews I had to dig deep and introspectively make a change that would address that one concern from that one student so that it would not happen again. I received some harsh comments from time to time around students being intimidated by my approach, but what got me through was the notion that working on myself will only make me a better teacher. What gave me hope was the stellar academic performance of my students. I knew I was doing something right!
I learned that I should continue to be a “difficult teacher” but that I could let my guard down to connect with students on their level. And building those connections takes time. I learned that it is important to stay humble and show students your human side. It is important to show, and not tell, students that you are available for them beyond their academic improvement, but also their mental health. It is important to be a mentor when called upon. It is also helpful to literally “show up” and to be active in student events and interact during nonschool-related activities when appropriate.
Once I had fine-tuned my reputation from a “difficult” to a “difficult but caring and trustworthy” teacher, the feedback I received was life-changing. The feedback no longer came through anonymous-school-related evaluations, but via emails, greeting cards, and other various expressions of gratitude. At this point in my career, I realized I had finally achieved a balanced approach to teaching that I admired so much about my teachers. It also gave me a newfound respect for those who had taught me.
The most enjoyable memories of my teaching career have been to watch the success of my students. Whether it is watching them have an “aha” moment when they learn a new technique, hear them use my “tips and pearls” in the manner I had hoped, or hear about them passing their clinical boards: their success feels like my success and it is quite rewarding. And thanks to those lessons on how to establish student-teacher bonds, I keep in contact with many of my students. I consider myself lucky to be in touch with many of my previous students who are now my colleagues.