How to cultivate a mentorship style that breeds job satisfaction

My path to becoming a dental assistant is somewhat unconventional. Over 30 years ago, I was standing at the bus stop when a man pulled up and asked me if I would work in his dental office. I decided to give it a try, and I fell in love with the dental field.

I worked in private practice for over 20 years before joining Aspen Dental. I quickly came to love the structure and support I received from everyone around me. I also discovered that the possibilities for growth are endless, and I became a lead dental assistant charged with training new dental assistants.

After 11 years in such a highly encouraging environment, I’ve learned so much about supporting staff, providing advice and guiding people in the right direction. Here are some of my best tips for being a successful mentor.

Be supportive, but also challenge your mentees

From the very start of my career with Aspen Dental, I’ve always felt supported by every mentor around me. However, providing support doesn’t mean constant hand-holding. Some of the best support I’ve ever received has taken the form of challenging me to be a better dental assistant. If you’re not pushing your mentees to be the best, then you’re doing them a great disservice.

A decent mentor provides guidance and answers questions, but a great mentor challenges their mentees to push themselves to learn and grow, even when it’s tough. Mentorship is about offering training wheels in the beginning, but you have to know when to take them off, too.

Encourage growth and advancement

Some mentees may see their current positions as the culmination of lifelong goals, whereas others may see them as stepping stones to something different. Either way, you should encourage your mentees to pursue growth and advancement, no matter what that looks like for each individual.

For example, I love being a dental assistant, so my advancement path kept me within my chosen field. After two years with Aspen Dental, I eagerly accepted a role to help establish a new office and get the dental assistants ready to welcome new patients. From that experience, I learned how much I love helping new dental assistants and watching them grow. From there, I moved into my lead dental assistant role, where I’ve continued to learn and develop while still doing the work I love.

I have watched dental assistants become hygienists, lab technicians and regional managers, to name a few. I love seeing my mentees grow and advance, whether that be through new positions, new skill sets or becoming mentors themselves.

Highlight the rewarding aspects of the profession

Unfortunately, burnout is a serious problem in the dental industry. I’ve found that focusing on the most rewarding aspects of my work, and encouraging my mentees to do the same, has both helped prevent burnout and produced greater job satisfaction.

One of my most rewarding experiences, for example, happened when my team and I extracted a gentleman’s teeth and gave him full upper and lower dentures. He was terrified of the dentist, but he found the courage to address his oral health for his daughter, who was about to get married. When he received his permanent dentures, he looked and felt amazing. He revealed his new smile at his daughter’s wedding, and as soon as he returned to our office, he happily shared all of the wedding photos with us.

It’s moments like these that help us remember why we do what we do. As experienced dental professionals, we may have more rewarding memories to draw upon than our mentees when the job gets stressful. It’s important to share those stories with your mentees, as well as work to create new experiences, too.

Mentorship is about spreading the love

I like to say that I didn’t choose dental assisting, it chose me — and I absolutely love it. Because of the wonderful environment I’m able to work in, I know I will continue loving my work for many years to come.

My mentorship style comes from a desire to spread the love for the work with my mentees. I always strive to be supportive while also challenging my mentees to push themselves. I encourage my mentees to grow and advance in whatever direction they’re most passionate about. Perhaps most importantly, I make sure to show my mentees the rewarding aspects of the work we do whenever possible, which, in a field as life-changing as dentistry, is often very easy.


Shelley Nunez, DA, is a lead dental assistant at Aspen Dental. With over 30 years of experience in dental assisting, she works hard every day to both train new dental assistants and provide the best possible patient experience.

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