dental student at a desk studying

Some people believe the answer is to become a dentist. I suppose that is true, since many people believe all dentists are the same.

My class in dental school (Temple University, 1980) was composed of 148 students, and I believe 120 graduated. We were not then and are not now all the same. Back then and now, there is a stratification of skills, talents and personalities.

My belief is that dental school teaches you three things:

  1. How to pass your boards and get your dental license
  2. How to begin learning dentistry
  3. How to not be too dangerous to yourself or your patient

With the four years you spend in dental school culminating with graduation, getting your license allows you to start learning the trade. You were taught the disciplines of dentistry just enough to understand how to do some basic care, or what many refer to as “bread and butter dentistry.”

Not only was there a stratification of students in your class, there was a stratification of instructors. Some full-time faculty that were only at the school and some part-timers that had private practices, as well. Was the message unified? Or at times confusing? Did they all have a similar philosophy or were there mixed messages? I gravitated to instructors that I felt wanted to help me become better and pushed me to do so. Early on, I understood the importance of having a mentor.

I can remember when I was in school and I asked an instructor what I could do to improve my wax-up. His comment was, “Step on it.” When you think you did a great job and your dental school instructor is taking too close of a look, you get worried. How they respond is really the key. Many will tell you what you did wrong, but some will tell you what you did right and encourage you to improve.

When I mentor at Spear Education, I usually ask questions so the student can open their eyes to see what I see. My goal is to help them see more and make less mistakes than I did on my journey. Different from dental school.

How do you start to learn dentistry? I recently had the opportunity to speak to a mixed group of young dentists and residents. Before the lecture started, most were chatting about jobs they had or were looking to get. I asked them what their ideal practice would be. I did not say “job.”

Most indicated their ideal practice would provide them a job that would allow them to be busy. I asked, “Is there a difference between busy and productive?” I saw some puzzled faces.

Most commented that they expected the owner of the practice to mentor them. I asked, “What if you felt you wanted your journey to be in a different direction then what the owner practiced? If you didn’t like the practice model, would you want this person to mentor you?” Again, puzzled faces.

I believe you start learning dentistry and growing by associating with people who have above-average practices and, more importantly, are willing to share their journey and help you on yours.

I am involved with several Facebook dental groups where I read and sometimes post responses and new topics. Take the information you see there and recognize that what you see probably can be done. But the reality of what is posted sometimes scares me. It can be very self-serving. Use these posts and their information not as gospel, but as an opportunity to realize that you want to become better and learn more.

Learning dentistry happens by doing it. Associate yourself with people that can teach you, show you and provide constructive feedback. My belief is the best learning comes from hands-on courses. Dental school was hands-on, but now it is time to take it to a higher level, as your future depends on it. Not only your future, but the future of your family and your team. Who you are today is not who you have to be tomorrow.

And lastly, hopefully as you start your career, dental school taught you enough to know what you can do predictably and what not to do. But what not to do now doesn’t mean forever. Get the proper training so you can do what dental school didn’t teach you. Get the proper training to enhance the basis information first presented to you so you can make a difference in patients’ lives.

While it may appear that this article is suggesting comprehensive care – and many have discovered how Spear teaches you how to provide that level of care – the truth is that we all make choices along our journey. Decide what you want your future to be and work to make it that way. If you are content with how you practice, work on the skills to continue to do so and grow in a positive fashion. If you are not happy, not content – find someone who can help you to identify what path may make you happy and help you get to where you want to be.

My journey started many years ago and there have been many bumps along the road. I now realize that I only arrived at where I am now by the people who helped me along the way.

There is one thing I still do the same today from when I was in dental school. It has served me well for many years. When I meet a new patient, I extend my hand to greet them and say, “Hello, I am Carl Steinberg. It is very nice to meet you.”

Good luck on your journey,

Carl E. Steinberg, D.D.S., M.A.G.D., L.L.S.R. ( is a contributor to Spear Digest.