After 13 Years as a Dental Assistant, Instructor Kerri Morris Prepares Spokane Students to Pursue a Career She Loves
The people who have the greatest impact on our lives aren’t always positive role models.
Sometimes, those we remember most are the people who showed us who, what, or how we didn’t want to be.
That was certainly true for Kerri Morris.
“When I was seven or eight years old, the assistant in my dentist’s office was a really unpleasant, negative person,” Kerri recalls. “Every time I saw her over the years, she was short-tempered and just plain mean. She never knew it, but she inspired me to become the opposite of who she was. As a little girl, I remember thinking that one day, I would become a dental assistant and treat patients with the care and kindness she never showed me.”
That’s exactly what happened. Kerri began working part-time in a dental office as a high school junior and loved it. For 13 years, Kerri, now 38, worked as a dental assistant, surgical assistant, and dental office manager. For the past eight years, she’s been a Dental Assisting instructor at Carrington’s Spokane, Washington campus, teaching a new generation of dental assistants that how they treat patients can be as important as the actual dental care those patients receive.
“When my students graduate, they know everything they need to know to become capable, professional dental assistants,” says Kerri. “But I also try to leave them with something more. I want them to understand that as they do their jobs, they will have opportunities every day to make someone’s life just a little better. My personal goal has always been to make sure that every patient leaves the office happier than when they arrived. A smile or simple word of encouragement can change someone’s day. I try to instill that value in my students because I know from experience that how we care for others really matters in the world.”
We talked with Kerri about the qualities she believes all good dental assistants possess, why she is drawn to teaching, and the unique perspective her own life provides when encouraging students who sometimes struggle with balancing school, work, and family life.
What do you like most about teaching?
I love seeing the transformation and growth that happens when a student develops self-confidence and realizes they’re going to succeed.
Some students never doubt they’re going to make it, but many others do—at least in the beginning. Not everyone’s path to that classroom is the same. I’ve had students who were homeless. I’ve had students who were single moms trying to balance school with raising three kids and working full time at a fast-food restaurant.
When a student who faces those kinds of challenges takes the first step toward a career, they often experience a lot of self-doubt. As an instructor, it’s such a great thing to see that insecurity transition into self-confidence. With every procedure learned, with every test passed, they believe in themselves a little more. By the end of the program, they know they’re capable of creating the career and the life they want. That’s an amazing thing to witness.
Tell me about the Dental Assisting program—what do students learn and how long does it take before they’re ready to work as dental assistants?
I love the structure and efficiency of our Dental Assisting program. It’s a 36-week program with five six-week terms, followed by a six-week externship. Every six weeks, a new term with a new group of students begins, so there’s always a sense of energy and enthusiasm on campus. Last week, a new class of 17 students started. Students are on campus two days a week for lab classes and attend online lectures twice a week.
When a student graduates from our program, they’re ready to work with dentists, dental hygienists, and office staff and to play an important role in helping a dental office operate efficiently. Their responsibilities can vary from one office to another, but dental assistants typically work directly alongside dentists, handing them instruments during procedures, keeping patients’ mouths dry using suction hoses, and processing x-rays. Other duties can include sterilizing dental equipment, preparing patients and work areas for treatments and procedures, and scheduling patient appointments.
Dental offices are typically a fast-paced environment, and no two days are ever quite the same.
Most of your students have other responsibilities besides going to school. Many have full-time jobs and kids. How do you support them in maintaining their focus and balance when they’re doing so much?
I know what it feels like to have too much to do and not enough hours in the day. It’s almost second nature to me. My husband and I have three sons—ages 10, 7, and 2. We homeschool the older two boys. I’m also five classes away from completing my bachelor’s degree in Psychology at Washington State University, so I know what being busy feels like. We’re also a super active family. We love kayaking, boating, and skiing, and the boys play soccer and baseball.
Between my home life, teaching full-time, and attending classes, it’s a lot. But I love a challenge and love being busy. I am very driven by nature, so I’m always doing or learning something. I love technology and am constantly learning new tech skills that I can apply in the classroom and around campus.
In your opinion, what kind of people make good dental assistants? What qualities do they tend to possess—and how long does it take to know if someone has them?
I can often tell by the end of my first class who’s going to excel. You can sense it. In my experience, the students who are most successful in becoming great dental assistants are enthusiastic, eager to learn, and engaged. They like people. They ask questions. They’re compassionate. They’re adaptable, flexible, and are critical thinkers. They also tend to have strong time management and organizational skills. If someone is eager and open and willing to learn, we can make them a good dental assistant. If they possess some or most of the traits I’ve just described, it makes it all that much easier.
What would you tell someone who’s considering signing up for the Dental Assisting program?
I’d ask them one question: What’s your goal and what’s the most direct path toward achieving it? At Carrington, we’re focused on training and preparing students for specific positions in the workplace. Once you’re working in your chosen field and getting paid while gaining real-life experience, you always have the option to continue your education and take your next step. Breaking into your chosen field is often the tough part, and Carrington helps students make that happen.