A 23-year-old elementary school teacher committed suicide at her workplace on July 18, 2023. The young woman had only recently completed her teacher certification exam, and her death elicited a powerful emotional response. In addition to words of condolence from children, the front of the school where the tragedy occurred was adorned with almost 300 funeral wreaths from coworkers, parents, and other schools. 30 more wreaths were laid in front of the capital’s education department. The late teacher’s bereaved family received condolences from Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon and Education Minister Lee Ju-ho.
In addition to expressing their condolences for the teacher’s passing, the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations urged “full transparency in the investigation of the incident.”
Although there was no suicide note or witness at the site, the internet community assumed that the young teacher fought against school violence and had suffered bullying from some parents as a result. She ended her life unable to withstand the pressure from them.
On July 20, the school administration released a statement claiming that the teacher had not dealt with the issue of school violence and denying rumors that a student in the teacher’s class was a relative of a powerful leader from the ruling party.
According to an “unidentified woman” online, the teacher committed suicide after attempting to deal with a situation of classroom violence involving the family of allegedly Ruling People Power Party lawmaker Han Ki-ho. Subsequently, a popular radio personality and full-time Democratic whistleblower, Kim Ou-joon, covered the story on his YouTube news show. Han dismissed the rumor as baseless, saying that no member of his family goes to elementary school and that it is easy to verify, before saying he would file a complaint against the spreaders of the fake news on July 24.
But if the information about Han Ki-ho’s role in the victim’s harassment proved to be yet another effort by the opposition to exalt itself in other people’s blood, it became immediately obvious that the school administration was concealing the truth. On July 24, it came to light that the parents of kids in the deceased teacher’s class had been called in for questioning by the police, who were looking into the circumstances surrounding the suicide. The Seoul branch of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union later made public a reported list of the teachers who worked at the school between 2020 and 2023. The reports stated that at Seoul Seo2 Elementary School, where the deceased teacher worked, the workload and parental complaints about school violence were at “an incomprehensibly immense level,” and the setting allegedly made it difficult for teachers to carry out their regular duties. The situation was especially difficult for new, inexperienced teachers.
Finally, with the deceased’s family’s permission, the union published an excerpt from her personal diary from three days before the incident: “It has been a long time since I last picked up a pen to write something here. This past Friday and weekend I felt very drowsy but I was with my family and that allowed the tension not to build up. I just didn’t talk to anyone much. However, going back to work on Monday after this whole work situation and *student’s name* has heightened the confusion around here. I feel like it’s too much for me and I want to give it all up. I am very tired, when I eat my hands shake, I almost cry.” So it turned out that the victim was dealing with a heavy workload and was experiencing issues with one of the problematic pupils.
When the school administration initially claimed that the deceased had not dealt with the issue of school violence in her area of work, it was later discovered that they had lied. According to Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, the teacher had applied for counseling 10 times. Two cases are related with incidents when a pupil in her class drew with a pencil on the forehead of another pupil. The victim’s parents consequently harassed and verbally abused the teacher, calling her on her personal phone to express their disapproval and question the teacher’s professionalism and proficiency.
In addition, previously hushed-up stories of violence against teachers by students have taken place or come to light. On June 23, a student attacked a teacher who was teaching a special education class at an elementary school in Incheon. The student grabbed the teacher by the hair and flung her to the ground. She ended up in hospital with neck injuries. The teacher’s comment to a child who was acting violently toward classmates is what sparked the attack. Prior to the assault, the teacher had endured two months of verbal abuse from the student and pressure from the child’s parents, who claimed that the child’s actions were motivated by his dislike of the teacher.
On June 30, a sixth-grader attacked and injured a teacher at an elementary school in Seoul, striking her numerous times in the face, knocking her to the ground, and hurling scissors and a mirror at her as the other students in the classroom gasped in horror. The teacher needed three weeks to recover from her wounds. Since receiving a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, the teacher has been unable to work in the classroom. She intends to file a criminal complaint against the student, according to her attorney, who also noted that more than 2,000 teachers throughout the nation have signed petitions demanding that the student get harsh punishment.
On July 24 in Busan, a third-grade student struck and kicked the teacher in the face and body after she urged him to desist from doing certain things while putting away musical instruments during class. This incident represents another instance of elementary school student violence against a teacher. Other children were around when the incident happened. Only after other teachers intervened did the beating stop. While on sick leave, the victim appealed to the school’s administration, pleading with them not to penalize the child.
On August 5, a court issued an arrest warrant for a man suspected of repeatedly stabbing a teacher in the face and chest at high school in Daejeon. He was quoted as telling authorities that he had previously been a pupil of the teacher, although his account has yet to be corroborated. According to police, the suspect had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression but had not received treatment.
On August 7, a high school student in Busan waved a weapon in front of his classmates. Fortunately, there were no casualties. The institution’s leadership, according to various sources, attempted to hush up the incident. Law enforcement agencies are investigating.
In 2022 alone, there were 347 incidences of student aggression against teachers, more than double the 165 occurrences reported in 2018, according to the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations.
The survey found that 99.2% of primary school teachers had been bullied. Their job satisfaction level has fallen from 67.8% in 2006 to 23.6% this year. Around 87 percent of teachers thought about resigning at least once.
A total of 1,133 teachers were physically mistreated or assaulted by pupils or parents between 2018 and 2022, while 1,252 teachers were the subject of investigations following lawsuits and formal complaints about alleged child abuse filed by parents. 676 of them, or 53.9%, were finally rejected as baseless. According to the Korea Institute for Educational Development, 55.8% of teachers said that working with unwilling parents was the biggest challenge.
The Ministry of Education reports that 202 instances of baseless complaints against teachers by parents or guardians of pupils occurred in 2022. There have been 75 instances of verbal abuse and defamation, 45 instances of persistent interference with the teaching process, 25 instances of obstruction of tasks, 24 instances of threatening behavior, and 14 instances of physical assault against teachers.
According to Jung Kyong Hee, a member of Education Committee of Parliament, 100 school teachers, including 57 elementary school teachers, 28 secondary school teachers and 15 high school teachers, have committed suicide in the last five and a half years. 14 teachers committed suicide in 2018, 22 in 2021, and 19 in 2022. 11 teachers committed suicide in the first six months of 2023.
The causes of suicide were 16 cases of depression or panic disorders; four cases involved family issues; three cases involved illness or personal issues; and so forth. In 70 cases, the reason for the educators’ voluntary resignations remained unknown.
In light of this, it is not surprising that on July 22, 5,000 teachers and students from universities of education, dressed in black attire, stood in front of the Bosingak Pavilion in Jongno district of Seoul, demanding a set of policies to defend teachers’ rights and shield them from disrespectful behavior from both students and parents. The demonstration described a number of incidents where teachers were physically assaulted by belligerent pupils in the classroom and faced numerous parent complaints. Teachers were helpless because there were no educational laws to protect them.
On July 29, more than 21,000 teachers and supporters took part in a similar protest at Gwanghwamun Square of Seoul, with organizers claiming 30,000 attendees. By wearing black clothing, the participants expressed their sympathies to the deceased teacher while urging policymakers to act to uphold their rights as well as normalize public education. They stated that it is becoming a common occurrence for teachers to be humiliated by students and parents, yet they have no one to turn to for support.
It’s interesting to note that many teachers have criticized Dr. Oh Eun-young, a well-known psychiatrist and TV host who is also a writer and a YouTuber, for her weekly parenting program, which features children who have behavioral issues and offers advice.
In their opinion, while talking about the necessity of a unique approach to each student and infinite development looks good in public, it is virtually unattainable in practice. However, Oh emphasizes the importance of discipline and that knowing children does not imply simply tolerating their behavior. Understanding troublesome children entails viewing them from several angles in order for parents and teachers to find answers, and she is concerned that a recent instance may give rise to the notion that educators should be able to use violence to address students’ conduct.
The demonstrations’ main demand was that the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Child Abuse Crime be revised. This act states that anyone who knows or suspects child abuse may contact the police. When parents or pupils violate the law, teachers say there is nothing they can do since once an allegation of child abuse is filed, the teacher faces months of inquiry by police and prosecutors until he or she is cleared. They lose a lot of confidence as a result, and some of them cease punishing students or leave schools entirely.
Furthermore, the so-called Ordinance of Student Rights, passed by seven regional education offices (including Seoul’s in 2010), has to be revised.
The ordinance was designed to regard each pupil as a individual human being rather than an object of control. It forbids teachers from using physical discipline (Yes, that’s right. The Republic of Korea just outlawed the use of a ruler to punish high school students in 2010), as well as discrimination against pregnant and homosexual students. It also permits protests on school premises and gives students the right to wear anything they want to school.
The legislation was formerly praised for upholding students’ rights, but it is now more frequently condemned for stressing solely students’ human rights, ignoring teachers’ rights, and making it difficult for them to keep order in classrooms.
Participants in the demonstrations provided numerous profound examples. “One of my pupils was making a lot of noise in class one day. I told him to be quiet because he was disturbing the other students. The next day his parents reported me to the police for emotionally abusing their child. They claimed I embarrassed their child in front of other pupils,” prompting a two-month investigation into the teacher. A teacher’s praise of a pupil is considered discrimination against others; attempting to seize hands to halt a fight is considered assault; and a reprimand is considered to cause psychological distress.
Subsequently, schools cannot prohibit the possession and use of smartphones or electronic devices in the classroom. Due to this, there have been instances where students have threatened to record their teacher’s reprimands on their smartphones. Some parents also make their children go to school equipped to record what they consider to be “verbal abuse” by teachers.
25% of the 22,084 teachers who participated in an online survey and worked in 1,315 kindergartens and schools said that parents and children who disturb classes should be harshly disciplined. Another 23.8% said that it was not beneficial that students’ rights were prioritized over teacher rights.
Such parental behavior, according to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, has prompted the quick closing of pediatric hospitals in South Korea. Parents express their frustration with doctors for even minor mistakes by posting their complaints on social media and to the proper authorities. As a result, more and more physicians are switching their specialties or closing their pediatric clinics, not to mention the sharp decline in pediatric applicants among medical students.
After recognizing the issue, President Yoon Suk-yeol authorized the administration on July 24 to come up with comprehensive guidelines aimed at protecting teachers’ rights and enhancing their authority in classrooms. Yoon did not go too far and stated that the choice will be made “after thoroughly gathering the opinions of all stakeholders in education to ensure that their rights are protected.”
Following this, Education Minister Lee Ju-ho, declared that “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.”
On July 26, officials reached an agreement on a number of legislative reforms. The Ministry of Education will develop detailed standards outlining the extent of successful teacher training and disciplinary actions in the classroom. To address the prospect of authorizing corporal punishment, the authorities aim to define so-called parental rights in schools and draft procedures for dealing with cases in which parents interfere with teachers’ instructional activities. “The responsibility of parents should be enhanced,” Minister Lee stated during the meeting, highlighting the need for better communication between parents and school teachers.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education’s (SMOE) pilot measures were announced on August 2, and they are as follows:
- Excessive behavior, such as violence that causes serious injury to educators, will be noted in school reports, as will other instances of violations of the powers of educators.
- Under the pilot system, parents wanting a meeting or a phone call with teachers are required to make a prior reservation on a special application. Chatbots will be introduced, which have been utilized at banks and public offices, to deal with frequently asked questions as a way to lessen the burden on teachers stemming from parental complaints. “This system will keep teachers from having to handle such complaints on their own.”
- Meetings between parents and educators will take place in waiting rooms monitored by surveillance cameras.
- It is intended to replace teachers’ school phones with modern phones that include voice recording features so that all conversations can be recorded.
- The education authority will extend its help to cover legal fees and streamline procedures where teachers are involved in legal disputes with parents in order to provide the required support.
- The SMOE head did not, however, announce any intentions to change the ordinance of student rights. “I maintain the position that teachers’ rights are not in conflict with students’ rights.”
The latter is quite significant since, according to the ROK media, “it is easy to demonize some problematic students and “monster parents,” yet, accusing specific groups cannot solve the problem, because all students, teachers and parents are victims of the abnormal education system here. Instead of looking for and implementing a quick and easy fix, the government must try to change the overall educational environment or social climate.”
In conclusion, the author believes that the young teacher’s suicide revealed extremely serious issues in South Korean society. Before a particular time, the teacher’s dominance was unchallengeable, and the students were entirely at their mercy. In the 1970s, high school students were warned “not to even step on the shadow of their teacher,” and memoirs or films about schools frequently featured a tyrannical teacher abusing students verbally and physically both in and out of the classroom. In fact, the elimination of corporal punishment in 2010 even sparked outraged statements in the vein of “how else to put a presumptuous schoolboy in his place?”
After that, the issue of teachers abusing their position became a hot one, in part due to the practice whereby, as mobile Internet usage grew, students started to use their phones to take pictures of bullying or unethical behavior by teachers and post them online. As a result, society was forced to take action.
But as time went on, a number of variables caused the pendulum to start swinging the other way. Initially, the idea that a school is a place where educational services are provided and that a teacher should “do what he is supposed to do” without having the tools to educate has started to spread to the ROK, as the psycho-pedagogical training of teachers in South Korea is not very good, in this author’s opinion.
At the same time, Korean parenting traditions state that children are free to do a variety of things until they reach school age, and socialization occurs at school, including through strict discipline. As a result, the Korean student arrives at school rather disinhibited, and the teacher lacks the tools and expertise to tame him.
Second, the administration vigorously fostered all types of civil society throughout Moon Jae-in’s reign. This was commonly used to insult elected officials in order to make harassment appear to be organized not by the state but by the “people”. Teachers often became victims of harassment in a situation where their actions could be interpreted in two ways, and the authorities rather encouraged parental chats as a kind of training for the “fetch” command. Furthermore, for a populist leader, the opinion of parents is more significant than the opinion of teachers because the former are far more numerous.
As a result, in the 2020s, the issue of teacher power abuse has given way to the issue of school bullying, which teachers have little control over. However, the legislation and criteria are still built for the circumstances 15 years ago, and it is admirable that the Yoon Suk-yeol administration, albeit reactively, has begun to work in this direction. Following a succession of prominent bullying tales, the authorities began to take measures, including a special statute, and here’s hoping that the situation with the rights of teachers and children will be controlled in due course.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”