Four-handed dentistry builds strong relationships

  • Tags: College Publication
Published 11/26/2018
Dental assisting students work with a patient

Dental assisting students work with a patient

In fall 2018, Elgin Community College Dental Assisting Program alumni and members of the area dental community gathered to celebrate the program’s 50th year. Marking the major milestone provided an opportunity to pause and reflect together—a priority for a group that prides itself on relationships.

“Dental assisting is about building a bond with the patient,” said Kim Plate, director of the program. “You typically take care of generations of the same family, and that’s something special.”

Plate found the career she loves after taking a dental assisting class at ECC 38 years ago. To gain experience while working toward her certificate, she was assigned to work with Dr. Bruce McLane, an Elgin dentist. McLane saw that Plate had promise and hired her. They worked side by side for 23 years.

“My goal was to have the next instrument ready before he asked for it,” Plate said. “You follow along and get to know how the dentist works.”

Dental assistants set up and clean examination rooms, sterilize instruments, take x-rays and impressions, and assist the dentist during procedures. They’re part of a team that normally includes dentists, hygienists and front office staff.

While learning what’s referred to as ‘four-handed dentistry,’ ECC students take 33 credits of dental and general education classes, followed by a rotation through local dental offices to get practical experience. The program is one of just five of its kind in the state of Illinois, and the only one in Northern Illinois accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.

Plate's career path led to a position as an ECC dental assisting instructor before her appointment as the program's director. When McLane retired in 2014, Plate suggested they swap roles.

McLane now works for Plate at ECC using his 38 years of experience to teach and provide counsel as a member of the program’s advisory board. He believes in the motto ‘people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ McLane passes that philosophy on to his students.

“What people remember is how you treat them personally,” McLane said, adding that he always looked for ECC graduates when hiring. “ECC’s program is the gold standard.”

Amy Amaya, of Marengo, agrees. In 2014, she completed her certificate and was hired as a full-time assistant at the dental office where she completed her clinical experience. “The whole program at ECC is amazing. It’s so hands-on and prepares you for everything you do in the office,” Amaya said. The interaction with patients is what she enjoys the most. “It’s great when someone comes in with a problem and you can help them,” she said. “It’s so rewarding.”

The program has the potential to be even more relevant as it moves into its sixth decade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental assisting jobs are projected to grow 19 percent through 2026.

ECC’s Integrated Career & Academic Preparation System, or ICAPS, offers extra assistance for dental assisting students and provides free loaner textbooks. ICAPS students take classes together with the goal of earning the first of the three available dental assisting vocational certificates in less than one year.

Kim Plate encourages students she meets to give dental assisting a try. “I tell them to take a class as an elective as it can always apply toward an associate degree,” she said. “Or, you might discover you like helping people—which means it’s likely the right career for you.”


In 1968, Marilyn Westerhoff was working as a dental assistant when she took a phone call from someone looking to hire an instructor for ECC's new dental assisting program. Marilyn seized the opportunity, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As the college's first dental assisting instructor, Westerhoff taught full time at ECC from 1968 to 2002 and served as the program director for 37 years. During that time, she taught over 500 future dental assistants and left a lasting legacy. In addition to the knowledge she bestowed on students, she also started the endowed Westerhoff Dental Assisting Scholarship for dental assisting students through the ECC Foundation.

Reflecting on her career, Westerhoff considers herself incredibly fortunate. “The greatest use of life is to leave something behind that will last forever—and I’m hopeful that’s what I’ve done,” she said.

Visit the ECC archives at to see Marilyn Westerhoff’s full interview and learn about the groundwork she helped establish for ECC's premier dental assisting program.