Inside Dental Assisting
Martha McCaslin, CDA
Las Cruces, NM
By Melissa Tennen
When periodontist Ralph McElmurry, Jr., DDS, received a letter in the mail from the local community college 13 years ago looking for someone to start a dental assisting program, he immediately thought of his own dental assistant, Martha McCaslin, CDA.
“Dr. McElmurry took me into his office and said, ‘I think this is the place for you to be,’” McCaslin recalls. “I was extremely complimented by his words, and want to give him my thanks.”
Starting something from nothing might seem intimidating to some, but this former U.S. Air Force-trained dental assistant didn’t think twice. She embraced the challenge of becoming the program director for a brand-new dental assisting program for Doña Ana Community College in Las Cruces, New Mexico. To create the program, she scoured textbooks, analyzed teaching methods, developed curriculum, created the floor plan for the clinic, ordered equipment, recruited students, and coordinated externship locations with local dentists—it was exhausting work, full of long days.
“It was just me, myself, and I,” she says. “I was writing lesson plans on my couch, and I think I was dreaming about it at night. It was exhilarating.” McCaslin was the only person working on the program in those early days. Although the work was challenging, she was grateful for the opportunity to give back to the profession she loved, the profession that has given so much to her.
McCaslin began her dental assisting career in the Air Force, where she spent 20 years in service to her country. Growing up in the small rural town of Centennial, Wyoming (population 50), McCaslin saw the military as a means to make her way in the world. The military was a perfect vehicle for her, allowing her to build her education, forge a career as a dental assistant, and see the world. Later in her career, she became a periodontal therapist, the military’s version of a dental hygienist.
“I became interested in dentistry when I was in the third grade. I had an extremely unpleasant, intimidating visit with my childhood dentist, which really stirred something in me. I wanted to make sure no one was ever treated that way again. So when I joined the military, I searched for a job as a dental assistant and went in with a guaranteed position in my career field,” she says. While enlisted, McCaslin developed her skills as an instructor when she trained dental assistant volunteers for Red Cross programs and oversaw the continuing education for other dental assistants she supervised.
Twenty years of the military took McCaslin from Greece to Germany. “I loved it, I really did—the travel, the adventure, the friendship,” she says.
McCaslin also saw combat when the U.S. launched Desert Storm in Iraq in the 1990s, becoming a combat medic and a registered EMT paramedic. Part of her military dental assisting work involved dental forensics for soldiers who would not make it home to loved ones.
“I still have very vivid memories of the forensic identifications that we performed, the emotional impact that it had when you find a personal item, such as a family photo, on the individual you are identifying. It makes them come back to life. That’s the emotional surge that can’t be explained. It also reinforces your respect for their service,” she says.
McCaslin retired from the military as an E6, which is a Technical Sergeant. “The military was a great opportunity for me,” she says, “but after 20 years it was time to do something else.” One of the places the military had taken her was New Mexico, where she and her husband decided to start their post-military life. She began working for Dr. McElmurry. She had contemplated becoming a registered dental hygienist, but the Doña Ana Community College Dental Assisting program was a challenge she couldn’t resist.
“I love being a dental assistant, and now I can share what I love about dental assisting with my students,” she says. McCaslin proudly states she began the program at the community college in 2001 with 12 students but no clinic or classroom for the first semester. “Teaching was pure creativity,” McCaslin says.
Today her dental assisting program has nearly doubled in size to 20 students being accepted each calendar year. Building on this success, the original clinic of 6 chairs was renovated in 2006 to accommodate a dental hygiene program and a separate classroom. Today, the program has 3 more instructors, all of whom are former students and certified dental assistants with bachelor’s degrees. McCaslin herself holds a master’s degree in educational administration.
The year-long program has been accredited without reporting requirements since 2003 by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) and has been recognized as a credited education provider status from the New Mexico Board of Dental Health.
McCaslin believes in providing a nurturing environment for faculty and students to thrive and reach their potential. The diversity of their teaching styles and techniques helps provide the students with a comprehensive, well-rounded education. For example, students are expected to sit for the radiology certification examination (from the Dental Assisting National Board) as part of their graduation requirements. McCaslin notes that this is important for a dental assistant’s career, which is why the program emphasizes this exam and has a pass rate of 94%.
Building the program to where it stands today has been a challenging endeavor. “Having 20 years’ experience in the dental assisting field doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the field of academia. You know what those students have to be able to do at the end. But to get all the parts to fit together so that they will learn and understand the ‘why’ of what a dental assistant does as well—it’s a horse of another color,” she says.
Bringing it all home to her is her impact on the lives of her students. Although her military career resulted in recognition such as a John Levitow award for outstanding leadership and a presidential award for effective communication, she treasures the one she received from her students the most—a plaque for being an outstanding teacher.
“What brings me the most joy is watching our students grow personally and professionally, furthering their education, whether it’s into another aspect of the dental field or seeking a degree in another profession,” she says. Her commitment to the profession extends beyond education. She also believes in the power of giving back to the community and includes this philosophy throughout the program.
“I’ve been involved in National Children’s Dental Health Month for 30-plus years. We have kiddie clinics in our college dental clinic area at least twice a year. My students are always an active part of that event. We had the Mission of Mercy in New Mexico for which I was the sterilization department chair in 2012. With my 18 students and 3 faculty members, we ensured that other providers were able to treat and care for about 1200 patients. We worked our butts off, and things ran very smoothly. I am also a volunteer member of the New Mexico Oral Health Council and New Mexico Dental Educators Association. We’re concerned about oral health care across the state, not just in our little corner of the state.”
McCaslin worries about access-to-care issues. “The thing that has kept me awake is dental care for children, trying to figure out how we as a dental education program at the college can provide more dental care for kids in our community who don’t have any access to care or insurance. We have a good number of first-generation college students—many of their families speak Spanish as their first language. So we’re busy translating educational oral-health materials to assist all people in the community.” For her school, McCaslin is presently developing the community dental healthcare worker (CDHC) module to help bring more dental educators to the field and to reach the entire population in New Mexico.
She also volunteers as an ADA CODA site visitor, assessing schools that are applying for either accreditation or reaccreditation. As further testament to her commitment to the profession, she also serves as a board member for Inside Dental Assisting.
“I would really like dental assistants to receive more professional recognition. I know other components of the dental team are paid more for what they do, and their scope is more focused, whereas for a dental assistant, it’s very multifaceted. Sometimes you don’t even have a split second’s notice, and you have to respond accordingly, anticipate the dentist’s needs, the next procedure, the health history and the pharmacology. Dental assistants have to have a lot going on all at once. We should receive more recognition—and definitely an increase in pay.”
McCaslin has advice for students and colleagues who may be inspired by the dental-assisting path. “Stay focused. Remember the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Remember to advance your education at every opportunity. There are so many facets of a dental assisting career. You never know where life is going to take you or where you are going to end up. Make plans and look at the big picture. Remain flexible because things will change along the way. I really enjoyed teaching in the service, but never dreamed I would be in charge of a program.”