Yesterday is always here now

When you teach history it becomes a seamless part of your everyday life, says Sean Lang, as he heads off to the latest ruined castle or stately home - where the gift shop is bound to have some useful slides

Can teachers separate their private and their professional lives? You are asking a man who proposed over the staffroom Banda machine in the lunch hour. I blame it on that heady fluid they used to use: can't see it happening with a photocopier, unless there's more to toner cartridges than meets the eye.

The honeymoon was in Paris. No, not for the romance: it was the bicentenary of the French Revolution. We queued for three hours in the wet for the big exhibition at the Grand Palais - then I discovered that we were in the wrong queue. My wife has never shared my enthusiasm for the French Revolution. Can't think why.

When you teach history, the boundaries between your teaching life and any leisure time become blurred. Apart from beaches, which tend to be the preserve of geography teachers with a penchant for coastal erosion, unless it is the one where the Normans landed, weekends and holidays can be an endless round of stately homes, high-tech museums or ruined castles.

These are all potential destinations for future school trips, with gift shops full of booklets, postcards and replicas, useful for teaching "medieval realms" or for injecting a bit of life into "expansion, trade and industry".

It has all become so ingrained that I tend to forget that this cannot be the same for every teacher. Do physicists get a rush of adrenalin when they see the leaning tower of Pisa? "Ah, yes. A good lesson on forces here. Year 9, I think." Maybe they do.

History has become virtually synonymous with leisure. At weekends we all traipse off to the National Trust or English Heritage, in the evenings there's Simon Schama or David Starkey, and if you go into any records office you will find that half the population is engaged on researching their ancestry. If history is the new rock'n'roll, is it any wonder that it is difficult for a history teacher to switch off?

Of course, I don't really mind. The best teachers are always those who throw their heart and soul into their subject.

Try going to see a film. If it is a costume drama, the history teacher will be the one sitting next to you muttering: "But that was Gladstone's policy, damn it!" and then storming out before the credits. Don't be too hard on us - all those misconceptions and inaccuracies are going to take a lot of work to eradicate if we ever get to show the film to our pupils.

Then there are the guided tours, especially those ghastly ones with the guides in costume. I keep wanting to grab them and shout: "You're not Henry VIII, you don't look like him, and he wasn't even born when this bit of the building was built." Impersonating the king was a capital offence in those days, and I'm all for it.

But sometimes a visit can rekindle the passion for history. I learned about the abbey of Vezelay in Burgundy from a tour led by a monk who was clearly in love with the place. As he threw open the great doors to reveal the light flooding through the clerestory, you could understand why.

The actor who led the tour of the then-unfinished Globe Theatre wove such a beautifully seamless web of history, architecture and theatre that we were as spellbound as any audience.

One year I was invited to join a visit of French history teachers to Mauthausen concentration camp, organised by an association of former inmates. It was a very moving experience, the more so because of the dignity and restraint with which our guides described their experiences.

There was a gift shop there, too, and although it would be nice to say that buying a set of slides there was different from buying them from the National Trust, I can't really claim that it was. That was what was so unsettling. There was even a Mauthausen McDonald's. But I got a lesson out of it.

Next week: art teacher Stephen Bird in search of inspiration

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