Carolyn Breen, EdD, CDA, RDA, RDH
President, American Dental Assistants Association
By Melissa Tennen
The tooth fairy is real. In fact, she takes calls from a stately mahogany desk, wearing a white gown and wings. But today the tooth fairy is missing something.
“I left my crown at home. So the tooth fairy is minus her crown today,” says her humble alter ego, Carolyn Breen, EdD, CDA, RDA, RDH, who is a crusader for empowering people to pursue their educational goals in dental assisting. She is also President of the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) and Department Chair of Allied Dental Education at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) School of Health Related Professions.
Breen explains that she has just finished playing the tooth fairy for a group of children; a role she has been performing for several years to promote National Children’s Dental Health Month.
“Being tooth fairy is one of my biggest joys. As soon as I put my wings on, my whole demeanor changes,” she says.
The tooth fairy role reveals a whimsical side of a deeply committed person with a tenacious work ethic, who has had many roles throughout her adult life—educator, student, dental assistant, leader, and advocate. Breen has worked tirelessly to obtain her educational degrees while working as a dental assistant and educator.
When Breen graduated from high school, she thought she was finished with classes—she never liked school. But her mother, who raised 3 young children alone after being widowed, prodded her to continue. “My mother said you must do something after high school. You must pick something and continue your education so that you can get a job and be able to support yourself,” Breen says.
After thumbing through Union County Vocational-Technical School’s course catalog, she found something—dental assisting. She had picked the shortest program she could find in the New Jersey-based school’s offerings.
So Breen received her Certified Dental Assistant (CDA DANB) credential, obtained her dental x-ray certification, and began work as a dental assistant.
Then, she saw an advertisement for a proprietary school, which was looking for a dental assistant instructor. Although at that time, she only had a few years’ experience, she thought she would apply. The school had no academic requirements for instructors. They were simply required to have work experience and hold credentials recognized by their profession. She landed the job and launched her academic career.
“I found out that I really enjoyed teaching and the academic environment,” she says. About a year later, she learned about a brand-new dental assisting program, which was opening at Middlesex County College in Edison, N.J.
She was hired as an instructor, but there was a hitch. Because the program was based in a college setting, she would be required to obtain her baccalaureate degree to continue employment. After a few years, she was promoted to dental assistant program director. While there, she earned her bachelor of science degree from Montclair State College in Montclair, NJ.
Two years later, she obtained a master’s degree in education from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. She realized that she could have more opportunities and be able to contribute more to the dental community if she followed a dual discipline. She then obtained an associate’s degree in applied science in dental hygiene.
Breen soon took a position as program director at UMDNJ and eventually became Department Chair. But something bothered her: “Every time I looked down at a memo, it had ‘Dr., Dr., Dr., Ms., Dr.’” To increase her credibility, she began her doctorate. Soon, she had the capstone of her educational journey in hand—a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, FL.
She had taken an unconventional and unplanned route—her professional career had mapped her educational career.
“When I got out of high school, it was pretty well understood you were a nurse, a teacher, a secretary. I didn’t follow the route that we normally advise people these days, which is to plan out your future, set goals, set a direction, set timelines, and create an alternate plan. My path evolved out of necessity. I had to work to support myself.”
Her hours spent dedicated to the profession are prolific. She has served as President of the NJDAA and Chair of the Dental Assisting Section of the American Dental Education Association (ADEA). She also was a member of theBoard of Directors of the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). She is also a consultant for ADA-CODA.
She has won awards such as the Cathleen Edwards Award for Dedication and Service from the New Jersey Dental Assistants Association (NJDAA), the Catherine Hewitt Award for Dedication and Service from NJDAA, and a departmental award for outstanding commitment to excellence in leadership and dedication.
Through all her professional achievements, Breen had continued with something she holds dear. Just 3 years ago, she stopped part-time work in a dental practice. “Dental assisting is still my heart, dental assisting is where I started, and dental assisting is where I still focus. I’ve always been a dental assistant first.”
Her work with ADAA has presented her with more opportunities to meet dental assistants at conferences.
“I’ll say to people, ‘Are you the doctor? Are you the assistant? Are you the hygienist?’ And the answer I’ll get constantly is: ‘I’m only the assistant.’ Or ‘I’m just the dental assistant.’ And that breaks my heart,” she says.
To Breen, these sentences make for a powerful directive. As she explains, power is not obtained externally, but rather from within.
“They need to be proud of the contributions they make to the oral healthcare of the patients they serve,” she says. “Dental assistants need to be aware of the skill that it takes to do their job. For all too long, dental assistants have not gotten the recognition that they deserve.”
Her platform as ADAA President is built on education. She has been working with other dental professional associations to make change happen.
“In order for dental assisting to move forward as a profession, we absolutely want to embrace all of the on-the-job trained dental assistants who have been the backbone of dental assisting since inception. However, to move forward as a profession, to have a standing in the professional community, to further the skills needed to provide high-quality patient care and to work effectively as a dental team member—true professional advancements come only with education and credentialing,” she says.
With numerous online education opportunities available, continuous learning is within everyone’s grasp. Breen notes that the flexibility of online learning is especially helpful for assistants who must work and support families.
“I absolutely, positively cannot encourage people enough to continue their education because you never know where your path is going to lead you,” she says. “Being President of my professional association has most certainly been the highest honor that any dental assistant could possibly have and something that I never either planned or thought could happen to me.”