In Bethan Roberts' 2012 novel My Policeman, Marion Taylor begins working as a schoolteacher in 1957. She writes her name on the chalkboard for her students:

A moment passed as I gathered myself, then the chalk touched the slate and began to form letters; there was that lovely, echoey sound—so delicate and yet so definite—as I wrote, in capitals:
I stood back and looked at what my hand had written. The letters climbed towards the right-hand side of the board as if they, too, wanted to escape the room.
—my name from now on, then

(p. 21)

In March 1958, she marries Tom Burgess. She is generally referred to as "Mrs Burgess" from then on; Tom signs them into a hotel as "Mr and Mrs Burgess" (p. 88), and the counsel for the prosecution at the trial of Tom's lover Patrick addresses her as such:

Mrs Burgess, I would like to read an extract from Patrick Hazlewood's diary to you.

(p. 124)

Marion's marriage is not a secret among her colleagues, and there is no indication that she keeps it from her students. However, the schoolchildren apparently still address her as "Miss". In July 1958, which is presumably during the next school year, one of Marion's pupils calls out to her:

"Miss, Milly's crying. ... I think she's wet herself, miss."

(p. 102)

I would have expected the student to address her teacher as Mrs Burgess or Ma'am rather than Miss. Were female teachers in the 1950s referred to as "Miss" regardless of marital status?


Roberts, Bethan. My Policeman. London: Chatto and Windus, 2012. Epub version 1.0, ISBN 9781448130986.


2 Answers 2


Bethan Roberts is British, and My Policeman is set in Britain. In British schools, it's still the norm today to refer to all female teachers as "Miss" regardless of their marital status. As user @GarethRees points out, British dictionaries still carry this as a definition of "Miss" - his example is from the OED:

A form of address to a female teacher (corresponding to sir n. 7).

The OED is generally seen as definitive but sadly I don't have access to it. However, a quick search suggests it's common. This is from the Cambridge Dictionary:

sometimes used by children to address or refer to teachers who are women: Can I go to the toilet, Miss?

According to this article on the BBC, the practice started because it was once the case that married women were barred from being teachers, so all female teachers would have been "Miss" by default.

Until the 1944 Education Act, women teachers could not marry and remain in post. Teaching had been seen as incompatible with a wife's domestic duties. When a female teacher tried to overturn the law in 1925, the Court of Appeal ruled against her: "It is unfair to the large number of young unmarried teachers seeking situations that the positions should be occupied by married women, who presumably have husbands capable of maintaining them." So before the marriage bar was lifted, "Miss" was always going to be accurate.

So if it remains common today, it was certainly the norm in the 1950's, not long after the passage of the 1944 Education Act (sometimes known as the Butler act).

It's probably worth clarifying that this is exclusively a second-person form of address used by children in the school setting, i.e. "I know the answer, Miss". In the third person, children and adults alike will generally use the correct title, i.e. "I have Mrs Smith for maths later".

  • 3
    This is sense 3c in the OED "A form of address to a female teacher (corresponding to sir n. 7)." Mar 17, 2023 at 9:15
  • 4
    Matt, are you a member of your local library? Your library number for most UK public libraries can be used to log on to the OED
    – Spagirl
    Mar 17, 2023 at 10:43
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    I think you mean second-person form of address. The first person is ‘I’ and is grammatically excluded from function as addressee in English. (Also, I believe Miss can be narrowed down even further: it’s only used as a form of address when the name is omitted. If the name is included, it would still be ‘Mrs Burgess’ if she’s married, not ‘Miss Burgess’.) Mar 17, 2023 at 18:50
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    Regarding your final paragraph, it's not uncommon nowadays to hear adults working in schools, like teaching assistants, use 'Miss' or 'Sir' in the third person to students ('Go ask Miss for what you should do next') or occasionally to address teachers ('Can I take Jimmy to the office, Sir?'). Sometimes it covers for them not knowing the teacher's surname and other times it's just a habit. I personally dislike it pretty strongly, but I have seen it a lot.
    – dbmag9
    Mar 17, 2023 at 21:35
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    And of course most schoolchildren do not pay much attention to the Mrs/Miss/Ms distinction in titles, and female teachers get very familiar with the wrong one being used constantly.
    – dbmag9
    Mar 17, 2023 at 21:36

'Miss' or 'Sir' is used in the third person when the name very clearly refers to a particular Miss or Sir. This would usually be a teacher who is physically present or one who has been previously identified by name.

"Did Miss say when we're having the test?"

  • 3
    Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Have you noticed that the question is about a form of address, i.e. the second person instead of the third?
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 17, 2023 at 19:38
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    @Randal'Thor I think this usage is also not unusual in the UK. You can find an example here: stthomasofcanterburyprimaryschool.co.uk/year-34-miss-bagnara "Miss set us a challenge". Would you like to mention what parts of the English-speaking world your experience is based on? Mar 17, 2023 at 21:09
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    @Randal'Thor In my experience, female teachers in India are addressed as teacher —you'd ask, "Please, teacher, may I come in?", when you're entering a classroom where she's already present. And they're referred to by either their first or last names followed by teacher: "I have Gonsalvez teacher for Algebra, and Norma teacher for Biology." I've never heard any student refer to a female teacher as "Miss" in India, in second- or third-person form.
    – verbose
    Mar 18, 2023 at 7:19
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    @Randal'Thor The equivalent for male teachers is sir, used similarly: "Please, sir, may I come in?" — "I have Joseph sir for Physics and Augustine sir for History." I'ven't a clue about when first vs last names were used, though. It didn't seem to track with age or marital status for either men or women. I went to a school run by Franciscan monks, so about a quarter of the time the tag was predictably different — "Please, Father, may I come in?"; "I have Father Pinto for Chemistry and Father Bertrand for English."
    – verbose
    Mar 18, 2023 at 7:25

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