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[Editorial] Teachers’ rally

Education authorities must tackle grave issues in classrooms following deaths

By Korea Herald

Published : Sept. 5, 2023 - 05:31

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Tens of thousands of schoolteachers in South Korea held a massive rally in front of the National Assembly in Seoul on Monday to mourn the recent deaths of fellow teachers who had suffered from extreme stress due to abusive parents and unruly students.

The rally in Seoul was held along with similar mourning events across the nation, and some school classes finished early since as many as a thousand teachers in a single local education district took the day off to join the collective action.

The collective action -- with some teachers taking leave of absence despite stern warnings from education authorities -- illustrates the depth of their despair and anger over unjust and stressful situations in and outside classrooms.

The initial incident that triggered a series of protests was the suicide of a young elementary school teacher in Seoul in July, who reportedly struggled to handle a school violence case. Last week, two more teachers apparently killed themselves, one in Seoul on Thursday, and the other in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, on Friday.

The rally on Monday came after around 200,000 teachers -- many clad in black to express mourning -- across the country gathered in Seoul on Saturday to commemorate the deaths of those teachers and demanded the government and lawmakers take effective measures to protect their rights. It was the seventh week of protest by teachers.

The back-to-back rallies have been interpreted as a sign that teachers’ frustration regarding high-handed parents and disruptive students is close to reaching a boiling point.

In response to teachers’ worsening sentiment, the government hurriedly unveiled a set of new policies on Aug. 23. Under the new rules that went into effect Friday, teachers can remove students from classes and confiscate their mobile phones when they engage in disruptive behaviors and interrupt classes.

But the government is required to take swifter action to prevent more tragic incidents. On Sunday, another teacher in his 60s was found dead in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province. Police were told by his family that he was stressed out due to complaints from parents.

At the heart of the conflict is a disagreement about classroom operations, in which teachers often feel helpless in the face of unruly students and overprotective parents who threaten to file lawsuits for petty or false reasons or simply harass teachers by bombarding them with text messages.

Teachers believe those who died by suicide were victims of such abusive students and parents. It is hardly surprising that many teachers are reluctant to take any meaningful disciplinary action against students engaged in disruptive actions for fear of facing their pushy parents.

Teachers have urged for a revision to the Child Welfare Act, which they say can wrongly hold teachers accountable for child abuse for taking legitimate disciplinary action so classes can run normally.

The protest by teachers is also spreading into the political arena, where the present administration and rival parties hold different positions on the issue. The Education Ministry warned teachers against taking a leave of absence to take part in the rally, saying that their “illegal” collective action will be sternly dealt with, including dismissal and criminal charges.

The ruling People Power Party expressed concern that the rally would disrupt the operations of school classes, while asking the Education Ministry to refrain from taking “stern” measures against teachers and instead make efforts to restore their damaged rights. By contrast, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea gave full support to schoolteachers joining the rally while slamming the Education Ministry for its strict position over the rally.

Both parties said they would try to pass the revision of the four related laws aimed at protecting the rights of teachers, with the National Assembly’s education subcommittee set to hold a meeting for the bills on Thursday. Considering the gravity of the issue, lawmakers are urged to speed up the legislative process. The government must take steps to protect the rights of both students and teachers in a balanced way.