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'Studying has made me a better teacher'

Part-time studying while working as a teacher has given me a student's perspective, says Sarah Simons

teacher standards lecturer FE open university college

The Open University has turned 50 this year and I’m celebrating. Why wouldn't I? I bloody love it and I owe it so much. The OU was my gateway to education, gently introducing me to a world which has since become my all-consuming addiction.

I’ve been studying with the OU for 13 years and can clearly remember the moment when I made the decision to begin. I was sitting under the willow tree in the back garden of our new house, watching my two-year-old son chase our ever-patient dog across the lawn, chuntering in his toddler sing-song as he went. The sky was blue, the days were long, and my only task was to follow my little pal around. It was supposed to be bliss.

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Losing my identity

In those years since having my boy, I’d accepted next to no writing commissions (I was a screenwriter at the time) and had lost all motivation to create new work. And though I adored my lad and had loads of fun with him, being a stay-at-home mum didn't give me the fulfilment I thought it would. I was gradually losing my identity and my marbles.

I suspected I was probably capable of doing some proper grown-up thinking as I’d had a good amount of success writing TV comedy in the five or so years prior to becoming a mum. But having been the least curious, least ambitious, laziest of school kids, I always believed my writing career was some sort of elongated fluke; that my feelings of "imposter syndrome" were an appropriate response to my historical academic shortcomings.

I’d been circling the idea of the OU for a bit, but assumed that they wouldn't let me do a course because I’d failed almost all my A levels. Also, my self-esteem was dwindling so rapidly that I thought the OU would probably take one look at me, know I was a wrong ‘un, incapable of learning owt, and would shout at me for even daring to apply.

Lost and stuck

Sitting under that tree, I felt lost, I felt stuck, I felt ungrateful. Not just because I knew I was hugely privileged to even have the choice to be a stay-at-home mum, but also ungrateful because I didn't feel the constant euphoria that the other mums I knew appeared to find in their role. Oprah talks about the "aha moment", when clarity arrives and you simply know what to do. Mine was more of a "fuck it moment". It was the moment when I thought, "I’ve got to do something to rescue myself, and if learning some stuff for no reason whatsoever doesn’t give me the required rocket up the backside, then fuck it – at least I've tried."

Happily, the OU didn't point at the door and hiss "How dare you?" when I went for my interview, and I've done all sorts of courses since. It was because I was studying at degree level at the OU that I was allowed to enrol on a level 5 teaching diploma (DTLLS) course, my first teaching qualification. I’ve done four more teaching quals since and had a surprise teaching career. I didn't plan that!

I've enrolled on some courses, like "World Archaeology" because it leapt out at me when I was rooting through the course programme. I've done some courses, like "Understanding Autism" after I’d been teaching for a year and, at that time, at that college, the CPD available around learning difficulties and disabilities was useless, so I funded myself to learn. In recent times I've been studying towards an English degree, which I’ll complete next year. I've no idea what course I’ll do after that. Maybe an MA or maybe a degree in something else altogether. The OU has made me a lifelong learner, so I know I’ll keep on going.

I have improved as a teacher

Experiencing the highs and lows of being a student while simultaneously being a teacher has taught me a lot, too. The frustrations of working through something I find difficult, the time management, the essay deadline stress, the delight at receiving a great mark, the despair at a rubbish one, revising for and sitting exams. I have more empathy with my students and, without doubt, studying has made me a better teacher.

This sort of really well-structured study, online and in person, helps me in so many ways. If I've hit a tricky patch in other bits of my life, I’m grounded by still having an essay to hand in regardless of what else is happening. If I'm ever feeling a bit lost again, I know that by learning I'm still, gradually adding new layers to myself, perhaps even gaining the perspective I need to look at a situation in a way I hadn't previously considered.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons


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