I feel a bit guilty saying “my best teacher” because I had a lot of great teachers. But Keith Perry was a man I’ll never forget. He was my A-level history teacher at St Paul’s School in west London. He was a wonderful teacher.
He treated us like we were adults and he never talked down to us. He created a system almost of tutorials: like at Oxbridge, where you have one-on-one meetings with a professor. He pioneered that in school. He used to talk through our essays, chat about them and explore ideas with us. He put in a huge amount of time that he didn’t need to.
He taught me that educators are there as friends and helpers rather than scary figures who shout at you if you haven’t done your homework. And that was something that, when I went to university, was really good to already know. So many people in my year had come from the kind of culture in which teachers and professors are there to catch you out. But having had my experiences with Keith Perry, I’d put my hand up in seminars and say “I don’t know what you’re talking about” or “You’ve completely lost me” and I’d look to the teacher or professor to explain it to me.
A lot of other people at university would say, “Why are you doing that? Don’t admit you don’t know what’s going on.” And that was very much what Keith Perry gave to me. He taught me that it’s OK to admit that you don’t know what’s going on, that a teacher can be like a friend who is there to help you, rather than a scary figure who is there to make your life a misery.
I had teachers in their twenties and they were easy to get on with. There were one or two older teachers and they were very good – but I did notice there were a lot of young teachers and they were very approachable.
In a lot of schools that I visit now, the teachers in the history department are in their twenties and early thirties and I think that’s great. There is a great energy to it. It’s very contemporary and I think that these young people are very good at making kids understand that history is all about politics, it’s about the contemporary world. The Middle East is a great example. Kids will be interested in the Middle East, they are interested in the refugees, they are interested in Syria. So let’s encourage that. Let’s talk about the history of European interference in the Middle East. I’ve met a lot of teachers who are into that, and that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I study history. I study it because I want to know what the hell is going on.
Now I’m going to backtrack because Keith wasn’t young, he was a man of middle age. But he was very approachable and he was a great guy.
I became interested in history because of my family, too. It was a family thing to talk about the past. We talked about my grandfather in the war and my grandmother’s experiences of emigrating to Canada. We talked about my great-granddad in the First World War. That for us was living and relevant because it explained how we got there.
Why the hell was I, some tall bloke, living in south-west London? The answer was because of the decisions of my forebears and the nature of the world that they lived in. I was tall because my great-grandad was massive, and half-Canadian because my nain [gran] had moved from North Wales to Canada.
All these things explained who I was and how I got there. For me history is not really about schools, it’s about family and about stories and about communities.
My love of history, and how I came to be, really started from the day I was born. I never knew that it was a different topic – I just thought it was called life. I thought it was everything.
Dan Snow is a supporter of the literacy charity Beanstalk. On 1 December 2015, Beanstalk took part in #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving. He was talking to Helen Ward.
Let it Snow...
Born 3 December, 1978
Education Westfield Primary School, St Paul’s School, west London; Balliol College, Oxford
Career Presents history programmes for the BBC, including 20th Century Battlefields and Battlefield Britain, and other broadcasters. Has a history slot on The One Show