Inside Dental Assisting
• Treatment Coordinator for Dr. Stephen Snow, Danville, California
• ADAA 12th District Trustee
Although Shari Becker, CDA, RDA, FADAA, has been deeply involved in dental assisting organizations and advocacy for decades, her introduction to this world began almost by accident, as a casual social invitation. "Jan Overholtzer, an assistant where I worked, invited me to a local dental assisting society meeting, just to keep her company at the registration table," Becker recalls. "And that’s how I became involved. About a year later, I was president of the local organization."
Becker first became interested in dentistry in the 4th grade, when she interviewed her dentist for a report on professions, because she had always loved going there. However, even before that interview, oral healthcare was in her blood. Becker’s grandmother was a hygienist, with a practice off Central Park in New York City. "In 1924, she won an award from The Allied Dental Council for ‘The best and most beautiful set of teeth in the state of New York,’" Becker laughs. "I’m not sure how they determined that, but she received a very large silver loving cup, which I now own and treasure."
After attaining an associate of science degree and certificate from a dental assisting program, Becker began to work in a California dental practice, and she has been chairside for 26 years. Even while volunteering in professional organizations and teaching dental assisting, she views herself as a dental assistant first—albeit one with a wide-ranging commitment to elevating the profession.
From her beginnings at the local dental assisting society, Becker moved to the state level. The two state associations—Northern and Southern California—had just merged, and Becker began attending the meetings soon afterward. "I was so excited by all the activity at this level," she explains. "There was so much to learn." Her first position for the newly formed California Dental Assistants Association (CDAA) was on the editorial staff of the newsletter. "Then I dabbled in membership services, and other areas where I could help out when needed," Becker says.
Even though she had not worked her way through all the chairs of the CDAA, Becker was soon elected president. "I had served in my local organization on a number of levels and had gained experience," she says. "Because of my background, there were some people who really felt I could handle the position, and encouraged me to do it, even though I was not technically qualified to run. So the CDAA changed the bylaws that year to allow me to qualify to become president—a change which is still in effect. These qualifications seemed to make better sense, opening up the pool for people who had led their local components. The board of directors felt that people with this type of experience would be able to take the position and really lead."
During her tenure as president, the CDAA initiated a statewide community service, "Care Enough to Share," through which all the local organizations made donations to a community shelter of their choice. They also hosted two successful student recognition days, for the northern and southern regions of the state.
On the national level, Becker has been a delegate for the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA), since the late 1980s. "I’ve served on a couple of committees over the years, and really enjoyed gaining an understanding of the business of the association," she says. "It has been great to see many of my peers here in California ascend the national ladder. Having these leaders right here in our own state has really been a blessing. They set a great example in mentoring, sharing information, and giving back to the profession."
Becker explains that the local, state, and national dental assisting meetings offer encouragement not just for professional growth, but for personal growth, too. "There is always somebody supportive to talk to," she says. "These kinds of relationships are really priceless, whether it’s on a professional level, or on a personal one."
When the opportunity arose to teach dental assisting, Becker took it, although she had never envisioned herself as a formal teacher. "I had done some teaching in the past, in fitness and personal training," she explains. "I had never really thought about teaching in the dental assisting realm, until Lana Wright, who was the director of the program where I currently teach, approached me about a part-time position for the introductory class. She liked my energy, and thought it would be a good entré for students into our dental assisting program." Since attaining her teaching credentials, Becker has been teaching dental assisting for more than 15 years.
Becker’s viewpoints on her chosen profession, especially in regard to education standards and mandatory state licensure, have been informed by her multilayered association experiences, discussions with colleagues, and first-hand knowledge of state legislation. "I truly believe if each state had its own mandatory licensure required for all dental auxiliaries, along with representation on their state’s dental boards, then the dental world would really be a different place," she says. "As a group, we love to invoke these phrases—consumer protection and professionalism. With state licensure, consumers would have more protection, and there would be legal accountability, which would help to further the dental assisting profession."
In addition to licensure, Becker is concerned about accreditation and standards for dental assisting education. There are a number of programs in California that are neither state board- nor CODA-approved, she says. "Students don’t realize that when they finish these programs, they’re not going to qualify for their state boards. It’s a system that needs help. Along with the mandatory state licensure, there should be some type of minimal state-approved education for that standard." Becker also professes concern at the lack of basic continuing education required for either licensure renewal or professional development.
Having served as past president of California Association of Dental Assisting Teachers (CADAT), Becker has witnessed significant changes in educational advocacy over the years. "When CADAT first started, it was more of a grassroots organization," she explains. "We were focused on curriculum sharing. Now we’re more global, and the tenor of the meetings has changed. We’re doing things in different ways." For example, CADAT increased its focus on legislative issues with a letter-writing campaign supporting curriculum development that met state requirements.
However, Becker remains concerned about the large number of dental assisting teachers who are not members of the ADAA, which provides educational and professional leadership for all dental auxiliaries. "It seems to me that it’s difficult to promote your profession, if you yourself are not a member of your professional organization," she says. "Some of the instructors say, ‘well, I’m really an educator.’ And my response is, ‘yes, but we’re all dental assistants first and educators second.’ As professionals, we should set an example for our students and encourage them to participate in their professional organization. Whether I’m in the classroom or at the chair, I’m teaching either my patients or my students, and I need to keep myself educated and help to elevate the profession. And one of the best ways to do that is to be a member of the ADAA. I would like to see everyone get behind the organization, and help build it. But this type of movement has to start at the grassroots."
Broader professional association involvement at all levels could help to raise awareness of the untapped energies and expertise of dental assistants. "There’s a giant dental community out there," Becker says. "However, many don’t seem to realize that auxiliaries would be more valuable at the chair if education and furthering themselves were encouraged. We should be uplifting each other instead of drawing these lines in the sand and saying, ‘no you can’t do that.’ We can expand duties to include appropriate education and training, where everybody feels safe, confident, and competent."
Becker adds, "Here is something to consider. What if there were national, baseline requirements for dental auxiliaries, with mandatory basic training and licensure or credential? Then from there we would pick and choose our specialized functions. For example, if I wanted to do anesthesia administration, or scaling or temporization, I could pursue the appropriate education and licensing in that state for that specific duty. I don’t know if that would ever be possible, but it’s cool to imagine it. Then we would be compensated according to our levels of expertise, and how we could best serve our patients. Perhaps there wouldn’t be as much disparity."
Even with these challenges, Becker calls her choice of career the best decision she ever made. "Every day of my life, I have opportunities to help people and give back to the profession," she says. "It’s one of the most fulfilling lifestyles that I could ever have imagined. And with more training and professional options—which I definitely see on the horizon—we’re heading in an extraordinary direction."