For Kim, a retired teacher in her late 60s, teaching was one of the greatest gifts of her life. Recalling students’ laughter and small parties in classrooms celebrating Teachers’ Day every year, she was a teacher who was revered and appreciated by both students and parents.
However, when Kim visited a memorial altar for a Seoul elementary school teacher who took her own life on Sept. 4, she lamented at how different schools have become and how the teaching profession -- widely revered in South Korea for many previous generations -- has fallen into disarray.
The recent back-to-back deaths of teachers by apparent suicides have laid bare the dark reality of schools, where educators are not only losing respect from students and parents, but also control of their classrooms. Including the 23-year-old teacher at Seoi Elementary School in Seoul, three others -- in Daejeon; Gunsan, North Jeolla Province; and Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province -- took their lives in last two months, sending shock waves through the education community.
The deceased teachers had all grappled with high volumes of work and students bringing challenging behavior to classrooms that led to severe stress, according to reports. They were also heavily pressured by aggressive parents who complained about everyday classroom matters, along with parents’ threats of reporting them for child abuse.
Amid growing outrage about mistreatment, teachers and their supporters took to the streets for seven consecutive weeks since July to express their frustrations and anger over the emotional toll they had to bear from parents and students’ harassment. They also demanded better protection of their rights against unruly students and overbearing parents.
Gradual decline of teachers’ authority
This decline of teachers’ authority was unthinkable until recently.
In Korea, where Confucian ideas of age-based hierarchy and respect for one’s elders are deeply rooted, showing respect toward teachers had been among the main pillars of society. Children were taught to obey teachers at an early age, and parents typically did not get overly involved in classroom affairs.
AS recently as the early 2000s, teachers held the highest authority within the school hierarchy, which enabled them to use physical punishment as a means of discipline. This sometimes escalated to the point where teachers physically hitting students in front of the entire class was a common occurrence in daily school life, says Yoon Hye-kyung, a mother of a high school student in her late 40s.
It was also considered shameful for any student to report physical punishment to his or her parents, and there were no parents who would accuse teachers of such actions, she recalled, "because it was considered a part of teaching, and no one could object to it.”
“Like the popular Korean adage, ‘Students shouldn’t even step on the teacher’s shadow,’ students at that time were obligated to revere their teachers. Being hit and beaten by teachers was nothing new.”
But then in 2010, schools -- as well as the vertical relationship between teachers and students -- started to undergo a seismic change as social demands for students’ rights grew.
First enacted in 2010 by the then-progressive superintendent of the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education, the Student Human Rights Ordinance banned any corporal punishment by teachers. The scheme allowed students to protest on school grounds and gave them freedom in dress codes and hairstyles, which were restricted before and were all subject to punishment. It has since been enforced in seven regional education offices, including in Seoul.
Later, in 2021, South Korea became the 62nd country in the world and the fourth in the Asia-Pacific region to prohibit any corporal punishment against children by repealing Article 915 of the Civil Act, which previously gave adults, including teachers and parents, the right to take disciplinary action against children.
Currently, teachers can be reported for child abuse for raising their voices in classrooms to reprimand students -- which can be considered emotional abuse.
Once a teacher is formally accused of child abuse by a parent, the accused teacher cannot return to work until cleared of the allegation, and they are replaced with a substitute teacher. In most cases, teachers are not given the opportunity to defend themselves against the abuse claims.
Park Nam-gi, a professor at the Gwangju National University of Education, pointed out that balancing the rights between teachers and students gave students more say than before in classrooms, but at the expense of disempowering teachers.
In response, teachers sought alternative disciplinary measures that didn’t involve inflicting physical pain, such as having students stand outside the classroom, assigning extra cleaning duty after school or verbal discipline.
The measures, however, made teachers the target of parental complaints. Incidents of parents reporting a teacher for emotional abuse of their child ensued. Gradually, teachers refrained from managing students’ behavior at all, in order to minimize contact with parents.
“It only draws attention to students’ rights and the importance of ensuring them. (The ordinance) doesn’t contain classroom rules and expectations, such as how students should behave and why. These usually set boundaries for classroom attitudes a student must bring and promise with their teachers and peers,” Park told The Korea Herald, adding that enforcing classroom rules are not incompatible with ensuring students’ rights.
Overprotective parents, rise of private education
Experts cited parents’ strong protective instincts and the rise of private education in Korea as among the reasons for the decline of teachers’ authority.
Huh Chang-deog, a sociology professor at Yeungnam University, said parents who experienced corporal punishment are directing their aggression toward teachers while reflexively seeking to protect their children.
“Parents identify with their children when teachers scold them and feel the same emotions as when they were punished. Parents have become overprotective, which gives them the power to speak louder about school affairs to teachers,” Huh told The Korea Herald.
“Also, children are becoming more valuable because many households only have one child. This has led to parents developing the ‘only my child matters’ attitude, negatively impacting the well-being of the learning environment,” the professor said.
And according to Huh, parents no longer deem teachers as “close companions” in their child’s academic and cognitive development.
“The main duty of a teacher is to help mold students to grow into responsible citizens of the country and provide necessary skills and knowledge," but their main concern has become shielding themselves from toxic parents and students, the professor said.
Professor Park singled out heavy dependence on private education as another reason.
“Before, teachers played a pivotal role in fostering students’ abilities and helping them succeed, but hagwon (private academic institutes) have replaced their jobs,” Park said.
“Students and parents have a lessened understanding of the importance of showing respect to teachers in classrooms and following their instructions because their money, time and effort go to hagwon,” he said.
The reward for quality teaching now goes to private tutors, Park said, explaining that public schoolteachers are poorly paid compared to other workers with similar education backgrounds and expertise.
Koreans spent a record high of 26 trillion won ($19 billion) on private education in 2022, data from Statistics Korea and the Education Ministry showed in March. The annual salary for a novice teacher is set at around 32 million won, according to the ministry. This is in contrast to the average annual wage of a Korean worker, which stood at 40.24 million won in 2021.
Increasing teacher turnover
Some 589 teachers with less than five years of experience left the workforce from March 2022 to April 2023, a nearly twofold increase from 303 in 2021, 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. False child abuse claims and complaints made by parents were listed as the top reasons for quitting.
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. The number of reported cases of students breaching the rights of teachers in classrooms surpassed 2,000 last year. The data also showed that the number of educators who needed counseling due to student misconduct and violence nearly doubled within the decade, from 287 cases in 2011 to 437 cases in 2021. Some 100 teachers at public elementary, middle and high schools took their own lives from 2018 until June 30 of this year, according to data released by Rep. Chung Kyung-hee of the ruling People’s Power Party in July, with the highest number of deaths in Gyeonggi Province at 22 and 13 in Seoul.
In light of the recent tragedies, the Education Ministry has rolled out new rules that allow teachers to remove disruptive students from classes when they interrupt classroom operations or violate other students’ right to learn. The new rules also allow teachers to confiscate students’ phones and require parents to schedule parent-teacher meetings in advance.
Despite the ministry’s efforts to ensure better protection of their rights, teachers are continuing to call for more feasible measures to be applied at schools. At the forefront of their demands are revisions to the country’s Child Welfare Act clause that allows teachers to discipline students’ wrongdoing without being so vulnerable to child abuse claims by parents.
In response, the government and the ruling party agreed this month to revise the Act On Special Cases Concerning The Punishment Of Child Abuse Crimes and the National Police Agency’s guidelines when investigating child abuse cases to protect teachers from being unjustly reported for child abuse.
Seoul’s education chief Cho Hee-yeon said Tuesday that every elementary school in Seoul will have telephone recorders to record calls from parents, and an artificial intelligence chatbot system will be introduced at elementary to high schools to deal with parental complaints. In addition, all elementary to high schools will have a lawyer to counsel and advise educators formally accused of child abuse.
If you’re thinking about self-harm or suicide, contact the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s helpline 1393, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please request a translator for English-language services.