For World Traveler and Dental Hygiene Instructor Amy McSweeney, Inspiring Students is a Different Kind of Adventure
Amy McSweeney lives in two very different worlds. Away from the office, she’s a world traveler and adventurer who has hiked Mt. Whitney and thrives in the great outdoors. But for the past 18 years, Amy has operated Monday through Friday in a much more constricted, confined space: in the mouths of her patients.
After working as a dental assistant for seven years, she earned her Associate of Science degree in Dental Hygiene at Carrington’s Mesa, Arizona campus in 2011. While continuing her career as a dental hygienist at a Phoenix dental practice, Amy returned to Carrington in 2014 as a part-time Dental Hygiene clinical instructor. She now serves as one of the program’s lead instructor.
We talked with Amy, who lives in Scottsdale, about how her childhood dental experiences influenced her career path, what it felt like to return to the same classrooms where she once studied, and how the challenge of adapting to teaching dental hygiene during a pandemic has made her a better teacher.
What do you remember most about your days as a Carrington student—and do you think those experiences impact how you interact with your students today?
My plan was always to become a dental hygienist. I was grateful to be in the program and very focused on making the most of it. I also loved that within three months of applying for the program, I was starting classes. The process felt focused and efficient, which I appreciated. I was working full time and my life was already busy, so I wanted the time I spent at school to count.
Dental Hygiene is a demanding program, and I think having gone through it gives me a perspective that makes me a more understanding teacher. I know from personal experience that the program requires a huge commitment. Many of our students are working part-time and have families. We also have students who are commuting up to four hours a day, round trip. I really respect the focus and determination that our students demonstrate every day.
How did you end up returning to Carrington as an instructor just two and a half years after completing your program? Was teaching something that always interested you?
I honestly never thought about teaching. My intention when I graduated was to become a dental hygienist at a dental practice, work Monday through Friday, and then go off and enjoy my weekends outdoors. As it turned out, the opportunity to teach just sort of evolved. I was invited to be part of a Carrington Program Advisory Committee. When a part-time teaching opportunity came available in the Dental Hygiene program, I was encouraged to apply. It was a great way to get my feet wet and to see whether I enjoyed teaching. As it turned out, I did!
What do you like most about Carrington—and about teaching there?
Carrington feels like home to me. I was a member of the first class to graduate from the Dental Hygiene program back in 2011. I was thrilled with the quality of the education I received and felt very prepared for the exams and boards, and I always felt grateful that I’d received such a solid education. So when I was invited to teach at Carrington, it was an honor. It felt like a homecoming. I now work alongside several of the instructors whose classes I attended, and I teach in some of the same classrooms where I once sat as a student.
What I love most about teaching are those aha, lightbulb moments in the clinic when you see it ‘click’ and a student really gets it. I also love that I learn something every day when I teach and adapt to different learning styles. Everyone learns differently. I’ve come to appreciate the differences in how people learn and process information. Some people are visual learners. Others are verbal learners. With some people, it’s better to show them. For others, it’s best to tell them, to explain things. Part of my job is to make sure that I teach in a way that facilitates learning.
How has COVID impacted the way you have taught your classes over the past two years?
Everything changed overnight back in March of 2020. We went from open to closed, literally overnight. While the clinic was closed for eight weeks, classes continued online. There were times when it was incredibly challenging, but looking back over the past two years, I see the silver lining. The team at Carrington—and the students—really pulled together and responded to the added pressures in an impressive way. I think we all learned a lot about communication and collaboration. We always say to ‘trust the process’—and the process worked. Even now, we continue to adjust and adapt as circumstances change. It’s been an education in itself.
What appeals to you about the field of dentistry?
I’m one of those rare people who loved going to the dentist as a kid. I had the most amazing dentist, so going was never something to be feared or dreaded. It was always a positive experience. I also had the same hygienist for my entire childhood. Even when I graduated high school and went to college, I would go back to her to have my teeth cleaned. Because I know it’s possible to have a positive experience at the dentist, I want to help my students become the kinds of dental hygienists their patients look forward to seeing.
What are some of the qualities or characteristics you think a good dental hygienist possesses?
The first three words that come to mind are organized, compassionate, and empathetic. Organization matters because you want to make the process as easy and efficient for your patients as possible. Compassion and empathy are important because you’re interacting with people very closely and in a very intimate way. You’re literally in their faces and in their mouths. If you’re going to be successful as a dental hygienist, I think it’s important that you like people and have a real desire to help them.