South Korea is in turmoil as hundreds of thousands of teachers take to the streets, demanding change and protesting against the high-pressure education system that’s notorious for its relentless demands on educators. The catalyst for this outpouring of frustration was the suspected suicide of a teacher, who many believe fell victim to the overwhelming burdens faced by teachers in the country.
Teachers are voicing their concerns about facing excessive and sometimes even hostile demands from parents, and they’re calling for legal reforms and greater protection. A rally on Saturday saw up to 200,000 protesters in attendance, according to the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations. Subsequently, an estimated 50,000 teachers gathered in the capital on Monday to commemorate the deceased teacher, despite initial warnings from authorities that striking would be deemed “illegal.”
The teacher in question had been working as a first-grade homeroom teacher at Seoi elementary school in Seoul and tragically died on campus on July 18. An investigation into the incident was conducted by the country’s Education Ministry and the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, but they did not release the teacher’s name. Two days after her death, the metropolitan education office superintendent, Cho Hee-yeon, made a statement acknowledging the teacher’s “unfortunate decision to take an extreme choice,” a euphemism commonly used in South Korea to refer to suicide.
While police continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding her death, Cho acknowledged that “teachers’ legitimate educational activities are not protected” and called for “special measures” to provide teachers with more legal and institutional safeguards.
The incident has struck a chord with teachers and educational staff across South Korea, who have long been frustrated by their inability to discipline students without fearing repercussions. Reports of teacher suicides in recent times have further fueled their anger. Government data indicates that from January 2018 to June 2023, 100 public school teachers in South Korea, mostly elementary school teachers, took their own lives. The reasons for these suicides are not specified in the data, leaving it unclear how many were related to their jobs. However, many educators blame a controversial child abuse law introduced in 2014, which allows anyone to report suspected child abuse without providing evidence, leading to investigations that can put teachers’ jobs at risk.
According to a survey conducted by the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, over 60% of respondents reported either personal experiences of being reported for child abuse or knowing a fellow teacher who had faced such accusations. Teachers argue that the current child abuse prevention law limits their ability to manage classrooms effectively.
Despite initial resistance from authorities, Cho, the Seoul education office superintendent, proposed establishing a consultation body to investigate the teacher’s death and protect students’ right to education while addressing teachers’ concerns.
President Yoon Suk Yeol also expressed his commitment to addressing the issues raised by teachers, emphasizing the need to establish teaching authority and normalize the educational field.
However, teachers and protesters remain adamant that amending the child abuse law is the only acceptable solution. Their rallying cry is to protect teachers and make the necessary changes to prevent any more educators from taking their lives. The protests and the focus on teacher suicides reflect broader mental health issues in South Korea and longstanding criticisms of its demanding education system, which places immense pressure on students and parents alike.
South Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD nations, with teenagers and young adults in their 20s being particularly vulnerable. The country’s relentless focus on education, with students attending regular school followed by private cram schools and self-study sessions late into the night, exacerbates this stress. Parents also contribute to this pressure by investing substantial amounts in private education. In 2022, South Koreans spent nearly $20 billion on private education, according to the Ministry of Education.
In a recent survey by the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations, which included 6,751 teacher respondents from across the country, only 23.6% expressed satisfaction with their teaching jobs – a record low compared to nearly 68% in 2007. These statistics reflect the urgent need for reforms and support for South Korea’s teachers and education system.
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