RANGELY I Colorado Northwestern Community College dental hygiene faculty Barbara and Mark Patterson are used to adventures. They’ve shepherded generations of students into an ever-evolving profession. They have been a part of that evolution themselves.
They wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Now Barbara and Mark begin yet another adventure: retiring from CNCC after 20 and 30 years, respectively. They taught their final session this summer and, for the first time since moving to Rangely (in 1984 for Mark, 1994 for Barbara), they’ve stayed home while faculty and students trooped back to campus.
The open schedule, uninterrupted by the usual flurry of pre-startup activity, has afforded them a much-needed break. Now, before the fishing breaks and road trips, before Mark’s hopes to flip a project truck and Barbara’s plans to write a self-paced textbook, they’re ready to reflect.
“Mostly, I’ll miss the clinical piece,” said Mark, CNCC’s dental hygiene program director for the last decade. “I really enjoyed interaction with not just the students, but the patients … helping them work through and understand their issues … has just been rewarding.”
For years before CNCC, Mark worked as a dental assistant, hygienist and instructor in the Navy and Army before earning his bachelor’s degree to teach full-time. After graduation, he sent 50 resumes across the country and waited to see where he would land.
One of the colleges he heard from was a small liberal arts/vocational-technical school in northwest Colorado. And as it turned out, CNCC and Mark were a good fit.
Rangely was also where he met and eventually married Barbara Zehner. A dental assistant for 10 years who taught in the field before returning to school for dental hygiene, Barbara later enrolled in the University of Georgia’s bachelor’s degree program to continue pursuing teaching.
When she came across a CNCC job posting in an academic journal, she decided to apply.
Right away, she felt drawn to the place and the people.
“I immediately loved it,” Barbara recalled. “I liked the small town, and having moved around a lot, this felt like home to me.”
Though the large, open-bay clinic looked outdated at first glance, and her office, barely the size of a closet, needed a window, the essentials were there.
Three mentors would help shape that early course of her new career and life: Mary Lou McKinnon, her fellow teacher and guide; Clark Crookston, the then-program director; and Mark, with whom she felt an instant connection.
For the first 18 months, the two were merely friends and coworkers. Finally, Mark asked Barbara to the local Crab Crack. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. As of this summer, they’ve been together for more than nine years and married for nine more.
“It worked out really well, I think,” Mark said. “You hear a lot of stories about relationships that begin in the office and how that complicates things, but … ever since we’ve gotten married, we’ve been able to spend all our time at home and all our time together at work without a lot of conflict.”
“And it’s not that we treat each other like we’re on eggshells,” Barbara said. “We say what we feel.”
The inevitable challenges of working together, including moments of heated discussion that evolved into someone giving way or agreeing to compromise, never superseded their common philosophy about dental hygiene.
“I think our sense of the ingredients that make dental hygiene a true profession is the same,” Mark said. “We’re really in line with our philosophy in allowing students to learn the hard lessons and not cushion the pain of the fall. You have let them fall on their noses and get up and dust off. Then you can say, ‘What did you learn from that experience?’ and take it from there.”
Their professional lives continued to interweave with those of staff, students and faculty. No, the program wasn’t always perfect. But it didn’t have to be. Whatever their differences in approach or style, hygienists and support staff shared a vision to invest themselves fully in preparing students.
It was that vision and the commitment of longtime faculty like McKinnon, Crookston, Joyce Key, Tracy Enterline and Phil Brown to carry it out, that made dental hygiene one of CNCC’s flagship programs.
What the common goal looked like in the 1980s and how it looks today, however, continues to evolve. Mark remembers gloves and masks being recommended, but not required, when he first arrived to the program (the Center for Disease Control made them national requirements not long afterward). And over the following decades, dental hygiene education increasingly emphasized the process — not just the product — of clinical teaching and learning.
“Back then, you had three instructors to check 20 students in, and by the time we got them all checked in, it was time to check out,” Mark said. “There was very little time to do any clinical teaching.”
“The (students) still got feedback on what to do and how to do it, but to actually spend a lot of time with students when you were stretched that thin was tough,” Barbara added.
Over time, Mark said, instructors have become clinical coaches, not just clinical checkers. The changing educational philosophy goes hand in hand with teaching students how to be educators. That means learning how to really listen to patients, identify their needs and motivate them to change negative behaviors or continue good ones.
Longtime coworker and dental hygiene instructor Tracy Enterline, who retired with the Pattersons this year, said the pair could intuit not only what their patients but also their students needed.
“They had a vision and knew what it took to develop a professional,” Enterline said. “Barbara could always make students think, really engage them. She’s incredibly intelligent and knew how to explain concepts in a way students could understand. And Mark was so hands-on. Spending 30 minutes one-on-one was so valuable to students because he would teach them to correct things they never even knew they’d been doing incorrectly.”
The opportunity for faculty to work in a setting designed to turn students into professionals came in the early 2000s when then-CNCC grant writer/foundation director Nancy Hoganson pulled together more than $1.7 million from grants, alumni and the local college board for a state-of-the-art dental hygiene clinic remodel.
As established instructors in the department, the Pattersons were shoo-ins for assisting with grant write-ups and, later, designing and overseeing the five-suite remodel in the Blakeslee Building.
The entire project involved a year of planning after the funds were in place, followed by the department’s move to temporary quarters in the Johnson Building in summer of 2004. The program began its summer semester in the new clinic in May 2005.
Although the Pattersons were happy with the remodel and its impact, they are reluctant to call its legacy their own.
“In a sense, it’s more Nancy Hoganson’s legacy than ours,” Barbara said. “I think our legacy is the hygienists out there practicing who have gone through the program. And it’s the people who have been so active in furthering the profession who help provide better access to care and better quality care to patients.”
They have to count themselves among that number. In 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, respectively, Mark and Barbara served as presidents of the Colorado Dental Hygiene Association (CDHA). During their tenures, they were instrumental in passing a bill that opened up the Dental Hygiene Practice Act, which allowed Colorado hygienists to perform dental hygiene diagnoses and provide local anesthesia unsupervised by a dentist.
The bill’s passage “was one of the happiest accomplishments I think I’ve had,” Mark said. “It’s been fun to be a part of the process, from being a garden-variety practitioner to an educator to a change agent, really. We actually made a difference in how the profession is practiced for more than 4,000 dental hygienists in Colorado. There are things they can do now that they couldn’t do before, and we got to be a part of that.”
Even as the Pattersons look forward to retirement, they’ll stay involved with the profession. They will keep their memberships with the CDHA and its national counterpart, with Barbara acting as a CDHA delegate and Mark participating in this year’s Colorado Mission of Mercy project (COMOM).
“It’s important that we still be role models for the younger hygienists,” Barbara said. “You don’t quit this profession just because you quit your paying job.”