Masters of the Universe

Yesterday it was announced that a Labour Government would create a new designation of ‘Master Teacher’, as part of a ‘drive to raise standards’. Setting aside any questions about whether this is a good idea or not, when I run the word ‘Master’ through my brain, here’s how the ticker tape comes out:

… man … boy … strong … powerful … master plan … public school master … master race … slave … masterpiece … masterful … cane … dominate …

At this point the ticker tape gets visual, so I’ll spare you the details. But when the tape runs out, I’m left wondering: ‘Hey, where were all the women?’

Words do not exist in a vacuum: they come with connotations. They have historical and cultural associations. The term you choose defines what your idea is. So what I’d like to know is this: does Mr Hunt visualise squads of Master Teachers, grasping their subjects by the neck and squashing their weaker colleagues into shape? Or does he actually mean a group of subject and pedagogy specialists, both women and men, who work alongside their colleagues to model and build good practice? And, if it is the latter, might I respectfully suggest that he picks an alternative* (and preferably a more inclusive) term instead.

* e.g. ‘expert teacher’, ‘consultant teacher’, ‘mentor teacher’ or perhaps even (gasps) ‘advanced skills teacher’.

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22 Responses to Masters of the Universe

  1. bt0558 says:

    Well I wasn’t convinced. I thought you were being a bit pedantic.

    I was thinking, of course the term obviously refers to………….”group of subject and pedagogy specialists, both women and men, who work alongside their colleagues to model and build good practice”

    So I decided to do some research, to google it.

    I tried …..

    Master butcher
    Master splinter (ninja turtles)
    Master stonemason
    Master weaver
    Master electrician
    Master at arms

    At that point, when almost without exception every image that appeared was male I decided to admit defeat. You make a very good point. I honestly didn’t see the word master that way but now I do.

    I would go for….”teacher”


  2. Thank you for your professional courtesy bto558. I really respect your journey on this. So many people dig in their heels and avoid the challenge of a rethink. Sue has summed up some important points and it’s great to witness them having an impact. I hope your comment supports others to follow your example. It would be demeaning and dismissive to adopt such a gendered term as a professional descriptor and I hope everyone will resist it strenuously.


  3. When people hear the word doctor they tend to visualise a man in a white coat with a stethoscope round his neck, when they hear the word nurse they tend to think of a woman in a blue dress with an upside down timepiece on it. Boss is associated mainly with men & secretary mainly with women. Language is loaded and reflects our society. However just because that is how it is now it does not mean language can’t change. By avoiding words that have connotations means they will always have those connotations. Women should embrace the word master, they too can have mastery, pull a master stroke, sleep in a master bedroom, have a master’s degree, become a chess grand master, be a master craftsman etc. The word will change slowly if it is used by women for women. Otherwise it will always be associated with men and that means men will have the option to believe themselves to be masters of all they survey.

    Just like actor is now being used to describe both genders so can master.

    Here is a great video about changing the meaning of negative words, phrases:

    Message is, in terms of semiotics, embrace the signifier, challenge the signified, change the sign.


    • suecowley says:

      The word ‘doctor’ is not specific to one gender, though, whereas the word ‘master’ is. That being the case, would you be okay with ‘mistress teacher’, as in ‘mistress of all she (or he) surveys’?

      Where a group changes language through changing its use, this tends to come from the group in question. Perhaps we should ask women how they feel about this concept and go with that?

      p.s. I’m still not sure this term describes what Mr Hunt is trying to describe.


      • No doctor isn’t specific now, it used to be, because of who became doctors. Other way round? Spinster of arts, mistress of arts, mistress of all he surveys… Yep I’d be okay with these uses of course, would you?


  4. suecowley says:

    What I meant was that the word doctor is not specific to one gender, whereas the word ‘master’ is – it means a young boy, doesn’t it? Spinster comes loaded with lots of negative connotations and suggests a very old fashioned view of women. I’m not 100% clear, but are you suggesting that all arts graduates, including men, could be mistresses of arts, rather than it being used an ‘alternative term’ to describe women? And that men should ’embrace’ this notion while women are busy embracing ‘master’?

    Of course, we could just plump for graduates and advanced skills teachers, and then we wouldn’t need to make it gender specific at all (which was kind of the point). I’m not convinced that women should be asked to ’embrace’ a term that is so intrinsically linked to men, when it is simple enough for us to avoid terms that divide us by gender in the first place.


    • Should we avoid all words that divide us by gender? Man, Woman…

      And should we avoid words that are traditionally gendered and replace them with words that have no history of ‘gender connotations: Actor and actress both go to be replaced by performer perhaps?

      I remember the wonderful Vagina Monologues where Eve Ensler goes for reclaiming ‘that word’ and I’m taking that one step forward. It’s probably easier than, say, picketing the BBC to object to Masterchef and trying to stop sisters from competing in it due to an objection to the word. I rather think the more often we see women competing in and winning masterchef, mastermind etc the less gendered the word master will be.

      For fun, the c word reclaimed:


  5. suecowley says:

    I’d be interested to know if, conceptually, you like the idea of being able to ‘master’ teaching, Martin? Or are team work, humility and self-reflection a part of the game, making it impossible to master? For me the word is just too loaded. It’s not the right word for what I think we are trying to describe. But I do understand what you say about tinkering with our beautiful language (and thanks for the videos).


    • The job is a never ending pursuit, involving teamwork etc. The idea of having ‘arrived’ is implicit in the term of mastery, advanced skills, excellent teacher et al. That is a different argument.

      However why not, it’s about the whole concept: can a teacher become ‘experts’ at the art or craft and should that be recognised with a career structure by which their mastery is recognised financially & with a nifty title with which to impress their parents?

      Maybe it’s always been a silly idea, teachers should be all paid the same no matter how ‘good’ they are at the job… Thing is, is this fair or indeed likely to keep people in the classroom. I expect it’s pragmatic rather than ideological?


      • bt0558 says:

        Interesting issues.

        Depends how you define “good” at their clearly.

        Kids get good results
        Kids learn a lot
        Teacher uses Tradstremist or Progstremist methods
        Kids not psychologically harmed by the education process
        Kids develop skills
        Kids more confident
        Kids more creative
        Meet / exceed the teaching standards
        Most teacher talk

        Would one “good” be better than another?


  6. bt0558 says:

    Maybe SA also makes a good point.

    “Women should embrace the word master, they too can have mastery, pull a master stroke, sleep in a master bedroom, have a master’s degree, become a chess grand master, be a master craftsman etc. The word will change slowly if it is used by women for women. Otherwise it will always be associated with men and that means men will have the option to believe themselves to be masters of all they survey.”

    However why choose master.

    Maybe we should choose “mistress teacher”. I am sure if it were used by men for men the meaning would change slowly but surely. Maybe male teachers who cannot even consider the term “mistress teacher” can get a feel for the way Sue and Diane feel when “master teacher” is suggested. Maybe that is a good thing. Allows one to step into someone elses shoes.



    • Absolutely, as I’ve said, no problem with that…

      By the way do you also think that we should be changing mastery to misstery (mystery?) and all other uses of the word: mistress chef, chess grand mistress etc… ?


      • bt0558 says:

        I cannot see a persuasive argument for changing these words. I can however now see a persuasive argument for not showing the same insensitivity as was the case in the past. I feel we should not avoid the mistake in the future just because we can’t rectify the same mistake previously.

        There is the issue of simply making a similar error and upsetting men, but I think sometimes it is good to step into someone elses shoes and “misstress” may achieve this.

        I would be happy with teacher however.


  7. I have some thoughts on this matter too.

    While I appreciate Martin’s proposition (if I have this right) that language is mobile and that anything we can do to shift it from something that reinforces or further embeds a paternalistic, chauvinistic culture is worth doing, I don’t think that using a word like “Master” that has had connotations of those ‘features’ of British society in the blithe belief that these connotations no longer apply is necessarily going to achieve the effect of erasing said inference.

    As a gay man, I have experienced the alienation and marginalisation caused by the insensitive, or at least incautious assumptions people make in their use of gendered terms – and I’ve often been chided for my over-sensitivity to these. Apparently the omission/assumption is not ‘intentional’, and therefore I should forgive it. So if I grow up under a regime of linguistic compulsory heterosexuality, am I really to assume that absolutely none of this is ‘intentional’?

    What seems to be a predominant feature of this discourse is that it’s often heterosexual men who take the position that words such as “Master” have lost their gender connotations. The reasoning seems to go “I believe any woman can be a master of something as much as any man can”. This is a reasonable point, on the surface, but it does beg the question: why would someone feel the need to make such a self-evident statement at all? The conversation was never about whether women were as comprehensive in their skill (in this case, as teachers) as men, it was about whether the use of the word “Master” to imply excellence was the best option for a national politician to choose when declaring a new, elevated, category of teacher.

    And, really, is it?


  8. suecowley says:

    I find it hard to stop my brain jumping between noun and adjective when it sees a word that could be either. 🙂


    • Because you find it hard should the whole use of the idea of master as an adjective change, should every person who uses it change, in every country around the world where it is in common use in English should it be changed…?

      Or should you learn to adapt and hear it in its non gendered form?

      And should we teachers encourage many more women to achieve mastery, paint masterpieces, become master builders and the rest, making absolutely sure no-one is ever confused as to what this use of the word is again.

      If my daughter were to paint a masterpiece one day I’d be so proud… (And probably tell her to ‘sell it…!)

      Or is this just about Tristram Hunt’s use of the word?


  9. suecowley says:

    Well it’s just my little blog, which seems to have generated a lot of debate for such a small amount of words. I don’t think I have any power over what other people do with language, but I do think I have every right to question the language that politicians choose to use. I hope that is still okay, even if you disagree with what I’m saying. 🙂


    • I’m sure it’s okay! And I think it’s okay to debate and disagree. Thank you for allowing me into the debate on your blog and also on twitter where it started…, it’s been fun and interesting.


  10. suecowley says:

    It’s been *very* interesting. This subject (understandably) inspires a lot of passion in people. Always good to debate!.


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