How I Became an Expert in My Field

In Motivating Women, My Story by Sheri Kay RDH, BS

People ask me all the time how long I’ve been in the dental field, and it’s hard to believe just how many years have flown by since 1980. I honestly don’t know how it’s possible that I’ve lived my entire adult life learning and becoming an expert in the dental field. What I find most interesting is that I landed literally by accident into this amazing profession.

It Was Sort of an Accident

Truth be told, my aspiration was to become a professional clown, but when Barnum and Bailey denied my application 2 years in row, I obviously needed a plan B. Showing up for a job interview for assistant at a dental practice changed my life forever. As one thing led to another, I made my way through every position in the practice (other than becoming a dentist) and found that I loved every single aspect of the work. The clinical side challenged and motivated me, and the daily connection with both team members and patients filled my heart. More than anything I found that what I was doing each and every day had depth, meaning, and unlimited opportunities for growth.

As I play back the tapes of my life, it’s easy to see how profound the dental community has been in influencing the woman that I’ve become. From the first dentist I assisted for, who taught me the basics of both expert clinical skills and the art and science of working with children, I knew that I was doing something special. When my dental hygiene student peers voted me in as class president, they recognized me as a leader. I still remember that sense of belonging and gratitude that helped pave the way to even more responsibility as time went on.

Learning Expert Team Practices

My dedication to growth and learning took off like a rocket when I joined an adult restorative practice that embraced the teachings of Dr. L.D. Pankey, an internationally recognized expert in restorative dentistry. It was in that office that my philosophy of how to work with patients (and with my team) became crystal clear. I wanted time to develop authentic and helpful relationships. I found a passion for creating partnerships. This led to creating high-performing teams who encouraged patients in choosing significant dentistry for themselves. Our practice developed clearly-outlined models of care and operating systems that improved organization. We committed to team meetings that enhanced our ability to work together. All of this heightened our ability to provide world-class care to our patients.

It seemed like a natural progression for me to shift my focus from day-to-day patient care to working with teams who wanted to define and refine their own practices. I guess that’s one of my favorite things about dentistry. The ability to morph by building on knowledge gained in other areas of the field! In my efforts to help create experts in the practices that wanted to work with me, I pursued studies in psychology, communication, neuroscience, and facilitation. Reading books on leadership, organizational development, personal growth, and strength-based coaching become my new mission. Workshops and completing programs on facilitation, coaching, and interpersonal dynamics filled my schedule. and the more I learned the more I realized just how much more there was to add.

Juggling Hygiene School, Kids, and Friends

Let me give you an overview of my personal life during those years. I was accepted into hygiene school in 1991 as a single mom with 2 boys ages 5 and 8. To say that I had financial struggles would be an understatement, and to say it was easy would be a lie. Graduating as a dental hygienist was, at the time, the greatest accomplishment of my life. Knowing that I could provide for my boys brought me a sense of safety and security that had been absent in my life for a number of years. Looking back I can now see that I had no time to worry or be scared. There was only time for studies, the 2-hour-a-day drive for school, studying, projects, and taking care of my boys.

It’s also important to acknowledge the life-long friendships that were forged with an amazing small group of women. There were 8 of us that lived about an hour away from the college, so we car-pooled every day and shared our lives. Almost 25 years later we are still connected and talk about how we laughed and cried, got married, divorced, had babies, and watched our kids graduate and marry. We’ve stayed in touch as we became grandmothers, still laughed and cried, battled cancer, and attended family funerals. At times I find myself becoming overwhelmed with gratitude, so blessed to be part of this incredible community in this crazy world of dentistry that includes these women. One question I have, don’t close relationships play a key role in becoming an expert in whatever field we’re pursuing?

Moving Forward to Dental Practice Coach

Fast forward to 2002. Deciding to leave the actual practice of dentistry seemed like a natural move onward. Like I said earlier, there are so many opportunities! I loved breaking the glass ceilings that I had imposed on myself, and I continue to enjoy the climb. What I believe in my soul is that we all are constantly influencing each other; and if that is true, I want to do everything in my power to have that influence be positive and expertly helpful. My core values around being in service to others become realized each and every day as I support doctors and team members in their own search for meaning and connection.

As a dental-practice coach I’ve now worked with over 300 practices. Also I’ve had the honor of presenting at state meetings, study clubs, workshops, and events all across the country. Dentistry has taken me to Guatemala and Napal for dental mission trips, and I was even voted one of the Top 25 Women in Dentistry by DPR in 2011. In my efforts to “pay it forward,” I’m proud to be teaching at the Pankey Institute. It is so powerful to support others as they define and realize their own vision of becoming experts in dentistry.

What a Wonderful Life!

As I sit here pounding out my life story for you, I find myself smiling. It’s beautiful to look back over our shoulders every once in a while—incredible to see just how far we have come. I’m so happy that almost 40 years ago I accidentally fell into dentistry. I’ve enjoyed having my community grow and love that I have lifelong friends across the globe . . . all through dentistry. I can’t help but wonder, though, how my life would be different had I actually been accepted into clown college?

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