Restore teachers’ dignity by reforming public education
“Don’t even step on the shadow of your teacher.” That’s what Koreans who attended high school in the 1970s were taught.
Every morning, parents told children on their way to school, “Listen to your teacher and study hard.” They even quoted a Joseon Dynasty dictum, “The grace of kings, teachers and fathers are all the same.”
Half a century later, everything is upside down. Last Saturday, more than 30,000 teachers rallied in central Seoul for hours amid the scorching heat (33 degrees Celsius). Their pickets called for restoring teachers’ workplace conditions and reforming public education.
The participants, including thousands who came from the provinces by bus, wore black attire to express condolences for a colleague who took her life in an elementary school two weeks ago due to stress caused by malicious parental complaints. Late last month, a sixth grader assaulted his female teacher in the classroom, causing injuries that lasted for three weeks.
It seemed as if the teachers mourned the death of Korean public education.
According to a survey, 99.2 percent of elementary school teachers said they had been bullied. Data also showed 1,249 assaults and injuries to teachers by students or parents between 2017 and last year. Teachers say these are only the reported encroachments on their dignity. Their job satisfaction rate plunged from 67.8 percent in 2006 to 23.6 percent this year. Some 87 percent of teachers have considered quitting at least once.
However, the government is wrong in its diagnosis and prescription ― yet again.
A week ago, President Yoon Suk Yeol instructed education officials to enact or amend various decrees and ordinances to enhance educational authority. Seeing the chief executive act quickly on a critical issue was good. But Yoon also called for revising “unreasonable self-autonomous ordinances.” He referred to the ordinances of student rights implemented by seven municipal and provincial education offices.
The education ministry went further. “The student rights code provides a blanket basis for filing malicious complaints,” the ministry said. “It was introduced for ideological reasons in the first place.”
However, they must not regard teachers’ and students’ rights as a zero-sum game. Both are essential to restore genuine education. Middle-aged and older Koreans remember how some teachers abused them, verbally and physically, in and out of the classroom until the 1990s. Korean movies set in schools were often about resentment and revenge.
Teachers have been accused and investigated for child abuse in 1,252 cases in the last five years. Of those, 676, or 53.9 percent, have been closed or dismissed by the police. It is easy to demonize some problematic students and “monster parents,” as the Japanese call them.
However, accusing specific groups cannot solve the problem, because all students, teachers and parents are victims of the abnormal education system here. Instead of looking and implementing a quick and easy fix, the government must try to change the overall educational environment or social climate.
The president should stop blurting out off-the-cuff remarks in unfamiliar areas like education policy, which require a long time to shape. A few months ago, Yoon threw the education community into chaos by ordering the elimination of “killer questions” in the college entrance exam. Education Minister Lee Joo-ho praised his boss as being a better education expert than him. This time, too, Lee is about to weaken the student rights ordinance.
Rather than restricting students’ rights, the government must enhance educational authority. For instance, it can enact a teachers’ protection act like the U.S., allow some means of discipline without corporal punishment like the U.K., and provide immunity for educationally justifiable acts.
Yoon and his aides should suppress temptations to politicize education policy by ideologically dividing voters. Instead, they must create a society where diplomas from top universities are not necessary to lead a decent life. Reforming public education is the first step toward educational and social reform.
Parents also should stop acting like consumers in an education market and teach their children at home with affection and discipline.