When Open University student Aimee Durning first volunteered at her son’s playgroup, she never imagined it would be the first step in her teaching career. Or that she would one day receive an MBE as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Aimee, who is half-way through her OU Education Studies (Primary) degree, has spent 15 years working as a Teaching Assistant and supporting children with special educational needs. Now working as Director of Inclusion and Community at University of Cambridge Primary School, Aimee has received special recognition for supporting children and families through the pandemic:
“Throughout the COVID crisis, we were relentless in our drive to make sure everyone had what they needed,” Aimee explains. “We just wanted to make sure we were meeting children’s needs at home as well as in school.
“We made sure that our vulnerable families were looked after and created food hampers for Christmas and Easter half-term and kept checking in with everyone. So we set up a community newspaper to bridge the gap between home and school as we had about 120 children in school and 310 at home, so we needed to make sure people felt connected.
“Though the Government kept saying ‘schools are closed’, they weren’t! Teachers, teaching assistants, admin staff – they’ve all not stopped working for 18 months. It’s been a very tricky time.”
A passion for teaching
Part of the MBE nomination focused on Aimee’s continued efforts to champion the work of Teaching Assistants. She recently set up a national network, with Dr James Biddulph, to share best practice, create networking opportunities, and to power up the profession. It was her passion for learning new things that first sparked Aimee’s decision to study with the OU:
“Everyone in the school is working as educators on an equal sort of setting, where we all have a role to play with children’s education. The adults in our school are learning as well, through a programme of continued professional development. This learning inspired me to learn more about primary education and choose the OU.
“Because I love my job so much, I couldn’t think about not working. I needed something that I could do alongside my work, which enabled me to work and study at the same time.
“Studying part-time is great. I know six years is a long time to dedicate to something, but as the module is just October to May, you just have to tell yourself that you’ll be busy for those months. You have to make tiny adjustments to your life so you can study and do everything else as well.”
Not only are Aimee’s studies helping her develop as a Teaching Assistant, she’s also able to share what she learns with colleagues across the school.
“There are so many things I’ve been able to take to the team and say, ‘I read about this at the weekend!’ So my studies and reading are feeding into everything I do at school. To be honest, it’s been wonderful.”
‘I now know I can do it’
After struggling in her own school days, returning to higher education is helping Aimee to overcome those personal barriers:
“I now know I can do it. And unless you have a go, how do you know you can’t do it? It’s just putting yourself out there really. I had a really disappointing mark early on in this module and to be honest, I wasn’t that annoyed about it because I knew I’d given it 100% and I had my own personal learning from that block. So even though I hadn’t written it well within the TMA (Tutor Marked Assignment), I still passed. It didn’t knock me back because the goal was that I’ve learnt something and that my learning helps children in school.
“The point of studying is to acquire new knowledge, so if you’ve done that, but still haven’t got the mark, surely you’ve still got what you want? That’s how I saw it, rather than being hung up on the percentage, learning is so much more than that. I think that’s the focus, because students do get put off when they get a bad mark, but just think: What did I learn? Have I retained something? If you have, great.”
Take the plunge and go for it
For anyone thinking of studying with the OU, Aimee has the following advice:
“Take the plunge! Don’t be nervous and just go for it. Initially, in my past academic struggles, I thought ‘blimey, will I be able do this?’ But because the first two years of OU study, level one, are set out so well and the academic side is so well presented, you have so many opportunities to practice. I think it’s perfect for people wanting to study and work at the same time. You can choose how much time you are able to give.
“What you receive from the OU is definitely value for money, as your tutor is always there if you need them and there are always students to connect with on the forums. So you are never alone!”