“My classroom is dark and scary,” said a 23-year-old elementary school teacher in a request to the school, asking it to improve the room. In this dim, unventilated classroom, students would raise hell. One shrieked while holding scissors, making the teacher fear a violent outburst. Another student had their forehead slashed with a pencil during a scuffle. The parent of the injured child hectored the teacher for the incident.
On July 18, the teacher died by suicide at the school.
The tragedy opened Pandora’s box. Over the past three weeks, tens of thousands of teachers from around the country have participated in rallies in Seoul despite the sultry heat. For the first time in South Korean history, teachers are demonstrating for their teaching rights. They shared stories of bullying they’ve had to suffer in silence at the hands of parents and students. Sickening tales of death threats, battery, and sexual harassment have emerged.
A recurring theme is unrelenting complaints and even abuse from parents. Bombarded with daily complaints, teaching stints in South Korean public education feel more akin to customer service than to education. On average, each teacher has 25 students; outside of school and off duty, teachers deal with constant phone calls from parents.
The stickiest matter, however, is how some parents and students exploit the legal and administrative system. The Child Welfare Act duly states that no children should be discriminated against based on their socioeconomic, religious, physical, and ethnic aspects. It also stipulates that children’s interests should be the foremost concern in handling their activities. Its definition of actions detrimental to children rightly includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, among others. And various student rights ordinances exist on provincial levels to safeguard students from all sorts of violence and infringement on their human rights.
But some parents and students take advantage of the sweeping and nebulous nature of these guidelines to frame teachers’ behavior and instruction as child abuse. For instance, innocuous acts like not smiling enough or not personally connecting a student’s phone to the internet have led to claims of discrimination and child abuse against teachers. When students hurl sharp objects at their teachers or wield weapons against their peers, restraining their limbs for self-defense results in charges of physical abuse. When admonition at wrongful behaviors offends their feelings, students threaten to report teachers for emotional abuse.
The possibility of being labeled as a child abuser hangs over teachers like the sword of Damocles. One survey found that nine out of ten teachers live in fear of being accused of child abuse. According to the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association, more than half of cases involving violations of teachers’ rights are threats of reporting them for child abuse and related complaints. For the past five years, more than half the reports of child abuse turned out to be groundless.
Yet irreversible harm is done nonetheless. As per the Educational Officials Act, schools can cancel the teaching positions of those under investigation for alleged child abuse. “At the first signs of a row, schools tend to impose suspension or leave of absence on the teachers in the crosshairs,” Cha Yun-kyung, a grade 4 teacher, told The Diplomat.
Even if no external pressure is applied, teachers under investigation may voluntarily quit their classroom for fear of disturbing the school and their pupils, Cha added.
This dynamic is why a whopping 94 percent of teachers insist on scrapping the practice of automatically separating accused teachers from their pupils or removing them from work based solely on frivolous claims of child abuse.
On the other hand, legal and administrative support for teachers who have been subjected to abuse and lawsuits is practically non-existent. Education authorities leave teachers to fend for themselves against all complaints, abuse, and litigation. Although the Education Ministry provides legal consulting to teachers, the service is poorly staffed and ineffective most of the time. “A lot of people advised me when I first became a teacher to sign up for private insurance to cover potential legal fees in the future,” said Cha.
When teachers’ rights are violated, principals usually sweep their distress under the rug. For example, two teachers at the same school committed suicide in 2021 due to chronic harassment from parents. Prior to her death, one tendered her resignation, which the school swatted away. The other was plagued by a parent demanding compensation for their child’s self-inflicted injury. The school held the teacher accountable and forced him to deal with it alone. Then it downplayed their deaths as “fall accidents due to personal causes.”
Animus against teachers and the systemic negligence of their anguish are ailing the whole education community – 99 percent of teachers say they are victims of some form of wrongs, and more than a quarter of them have sought psychiatric treatment.
Teachers’ unprecedented rallies and public indignation have prompted a flurry of government promises and discussion. On August 1, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol urged the Education Ministry to heed to teachers’ voices.
Their demands are to codify the scope of their rightful acts of guidance and education; to protect teachers from frivolous accusations of child abuse; to institute deterrents and penalties for parents and students abusing or falsely accusing teachers; to legally define malevolent complaints and establish them as acts of violence; and to rewrite students’ rights ordinances so that they reflect not just students’ inviolable rights but also their duties and responsibilities.
Legislative amendments are in the pipeline, too. The ruling People Power Party and the opposition Democratic Party have found rare common ground on the need to exempt teachers’ reasonable instruction and response from allegations of child abuse, to protect their teaching rights, and to shield them from abuse.
Still, tempers are high and rancor deep. The mindset in clearing through this tough patch should be to remember that the fight for teachers’ and students’ rights is not a zero-sum game. Only when both are balanced and mutually respected can South Korea’s public education thrive.
“We are not saying students should be stripped of their rights and be passive. We are saying that ours need to be protected too. We just want to be able to teach and care for our students,” said Cha.