Full Circle: Carrington Grad Katy O’Hara Returns to Teach and Direct Dental Assisting Program She Once Attended
When Katy O’Hara graduated from Carrington’s Dental Assisting program in Phoenix in 2014, she had no idea her career path would eventually lead her back into the classroom at another Carrington campus.
“But that’s exactly how it worked out,” says Katy, who began teaching part-time in the Dental Assisting program on Carrington’s Mesa, Arizona campus in early 2018. She transitioned into full-time teaching within six months, and then became a lead instructor. She was named program director in January, 2021.
We talked with Katy about the qualities good dental assistants tend to possess, the wide range of careers available to program graduates, and how she thinks her previous occupation as a preschool teacher has made her a better instructor and administrator.
How did you first learn about Carrington?
I had been thinking about making a career change from early childhood education to the dental field for a while. When my dad went for a dental cleaning, he told his dentist what I was considering. His dentist recommended I check out Carrington. I did—and I really liked what I saw. The people I talked with at the Phoenix campus were responsive and caring. It really felt like a place where I wouldn’t just be a number, a place where I could succeed. Within a week, I had applied, been accepted, and began the Dental Assisting program.
In February 2014, I graduated and went to work at a general dentistry practice for two and a half years. It was great training. I not only worked alongside the dentist providing care to patients, but I also learned how to operate and manage the office.
At one point, I decided to enroll in the Dental Hygiene program at another college, but that ultimately didn’t feel like a good fit and I changed course. Around that time, I heard there was a part-time instructor position open at Carrington’s Dental Assisting program. I applied—and got the job!
You’ve been the Dental Assisting program director for more than a year now. Are you still teaching as well?
I was teaching one class until last month, but directing the program has really expanded into a full-time job. Fortunately, we have three instructors—two full-time and one part-time—on our team. Our program is five terms, with a new class of students starting every six weeks. We currently have 80 students in the program, and 21 new ones starting this week. As you can imagine, it’s pretty active around here.
What qualities or personality traits do you think good dental assistants tend to possess?
The first thing that comes to mind are empathy and a desire to help people. That’s huge. I also think an ability to communicate effectively is important, because you’re interacting all day, every day, with patients, doctors, coworkers, and insurance companies. Being able to listen—and to communicate information directly and clearly—is a great skill in any job, including dental assisting.
It’s also important to be flexible and to be willing and able to adapt quickly. Schedules change. Emergencies happen. A treatment plan sometimes needs to changed midway through a procedure. If you have a rigid personality and are easily thrown off by sudden changes, a career as a dental assistant might not be the ideal fit for you.
I also think curiosity and a desire to continue learning are traits that serve dental assistants well. New treatment protocols and new materials are being developed and refined all the time, so it can often feel like you’re learning something new every day.
What do you like most about the work you do at Carrington?
I love watching students write their own success stories every day. Seeing them grow as they develop skills and self-confidence is inspiring and rewarding. I remember what it’s like to be starting out and to want more. Like most people, I began by working in fast food and retail sales. So when I see a student come to Carrington determined to create the next step in his or her life, I have a lot of respect for that and will do whatever I can to encourage them.
It’s especially exciting to see a student who has been struggling make a big breakthrough. Seeing their anxiety fade as they become more confident is a great thing. On the first day of the program, they really don’t even know what they don’t know. Two or three terms later, they’re mentoring the newer students and learning to apply all the knowledge they’ve acquired.
The environment on the Mesa campus is very conducive to student success. It’s a wonderful, collaborative place where everyone is willing to go the extra mile to help others out. There are a lot of good people here, and that energy is both productive and contagious.
I recently received a ‘thank you’ note from a student that meant a lot to me. He said he’d never felt like he had someone in his corner until he came to Carrington and met me. He said my belief in him made a real difference in his life. When you hear someone say that, you know you’re doing something right.
What range of career opportunities are there for students who complete the Dental Assisting program?
Most people think of dental assistants as the people who work alongside the dentist when they’re getting a filling or a root canal, but there are so many other career options in the field. Some dental assistants operate travelling dental care programs that visit underserved communities. Others work in specialties like orthodontics, periodontics, or as pediatric dental assistants.
There are also opportunities as treatment coordinators and front office managers. While neither of these positions provide direct patient care, the training the people who do these jobs receive in our program is essential because they better understand what different treatments involve and how long each typically takes. That knowledge is valuable in booking appointments and helping a dental office run efficiently.
Before entering the dental field, you worked as a preschool instructor. What did you learn in that position that you’ve carried into your present job?
Four-year-olds are easily distracted—and so are adults with cell phones! So whether you’re teaching preschool or dental assisting at a college, it’s really important to create a focused classroom space that’s fun, interactive, and engaged. You want to keep the information, communication, and energy flowing so that students learn. The more open and enjoyable the learning experience is, the better it is for everyone.