The Korea Herald


Korea roiled by debate over teachers’ rights

Teacher’s suicide spotlights declining status of profession

By Park Jun-hee

Published : July 20, 2023 - 15:29

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Wreaths are placed in front of an elementary school in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, to pay respects for a teacher who took her own life there on Tuesday morning. (Yonhap) Wreaths are placed in front of an elementary school in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, to pay respects for a teacher who took her own life there on Tuesday morning. (Yonhap)

The suicide of an elementary school teacher in her own classroom has reignited debate over teachers’ rights, and whether schools have enough protective measures in place, amid rising reports of assaults against teachers.

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education on Wednesday confirmed that an early-career teacher at an elementary school in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, was found dead in her classroom Tuesday morning before school started. According to reports, the teacher was a 23-year-old woman who passed the teacher certification exam in 2022 and joined the school in March that year.

Local media reported of rumors that the teacher suffered from months of bullying and pressure at the hands of a parent, whose first-grade daughter was allegedly embroiled in a school bullying case.

The school has denied that the teacher had been subject to bullying or that the teacher had been subject to any conflict concerning school violence, via a statement Thursday.

Police have launched an investigation into the case.

The case prompted immediate reaction from various teachers’ groups calling for improvement in teachers’ rights and their protection, as it followed another case earlier this week of a female elementary school teacher in Seoul who was allegedly assaulted by a six-grade male student in front of other students, resulting in her admission to hospital.

The teacher was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and she claims the student’s parents are holding her responsible for the matter.

Both cases enraged teachers nationwide, who said they laid bare the dark reality of public schools where teachers’ authority is no longer respected in classrooms.

They cite a stark increase in the number of teachers being physically assaulted or attacked by students and parents. A total of 1,133 teachers have been subject to such harassment between 2018 and 2022, according to data released by the Ministry of Education. Also, the number of reported cases of students breaching the rights of teachers in classrooms surpassed 2,000 last year.

In light of the suicide case, Education Minister Lee Ju-ho said during a Thursday meeting with education superintendents that the fall of teachers’ rights is a “serious infringement,” adding that it poses a “serious challenge” to the education sector.

“Protecting teachers’ rights goes beyond the rights of teachers as it protects students’ learning rights. Any infringement on (a teacher’s) academic activities can never be tolerated,” Lee said.

Seoul Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon said teachers’ rights are being “severely violated,” where teachers sometimes suffer from poor psychological and emotional well-being. Cho added that his office would “sincerely cooperate” with the police investigation to identify the exact cause of the teacher’s death.

The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations issued a statement on the same day, urging agencies to thoroughly look into the case.

Among the myriad factors impacting teachers’ authority, critics say abusive behavior from parents has contributed to a decline in teachers’ autonomy and decision-making power, as a growing number of parents are becoming more protective of their children.

According to data released by Rep. Kwon Eun-hee of the ruling People Power Party and a member of the National Assembly’s Education Committee, 589 teachers with an experience of less than five years left the workforce from March 2022 to April 2023, a nearly twofold increase from 303 in 2021. False reports of child abuse claims and complaints made by parents were listed as the top reasons for quitting.

Local education experts called for implementing an in-house school system to shield teachers from parents and students in and out of classrooms.

Park Nam-gi, a professor at Gwangju National University of Education, said Korea should take a cue from the US’ teacher support system, where teachers can reach out to principals and higher-ups in school when they need help dealing with students and parents.

“‘Monster’ parents with a high drive and enthusiasm for education, especially those in Gangnam, sue teachers when they are unhappy with them. But if we implement (a US-style) system, schools, the ministry and the education office will be able to respond to parental complaints adequately,” Park told The Korea Herald.

Park also pointed out that at-risk students, including those with anger issues or perpetrators of bullying, should be required to take alternative approaches to education.

“It’s unfair for teachers to care for problematic students, who can (sometimes) cause severe mental distress (for teachers). The government should come up with measures to separate teachers from students with such issues,” Park noted.