Recently, there has been a movement in the education community to call for teachers' rights. In the wake of the suicide of a teacher at Seoul Seo 2 Elementary School on July 18, teachers gathered from all over the country to discuss the difficulties caused by the ongoing violations of their rights in the education system. They are demanding the government to "normalize public education" by reorganizing the education system to ensure protection.
The reality inside the school gate
Teachers' right is not a position of superiority over students, but rather the right to freely engage in educational activities while respecting the rights of students. According to a 2021 report on teachers' rights protection and receiving counseling released by the Korean Federation of Teachers' Association (KFTA) in 2022, there were 437 cases of violation for teachers' rights in 2021. Of these cases, 155 were reported by teaching staff, 128 by parents, and 57 by students, with these three categories accounting for the highest percentage. These numbers represent an increase of more than 20 cases per category compared to the previous year. In cases where a student behaves in a way that violates the teachers' rights in the classroom, the situation can be exacerbated by excessive demands from parents who take the students' side. In addition, teaching staff who are responsible for mediating these conflicts can act as another infringer by putting the parents' needs ahead of the teachers' in order to resolve the complaint quickly. As a result, teachers are experiencing various kinds of violations at school including abusive language and ignoring. The continuation of infringements, rather than being one-off incidents, is preventing teachers from delivering quality education.
Situations that prevent teachers from performing their role of teaching take a variety of harms on them. In addition, the interpersonal trauma gained from exposure to verbal violence can lead to psychological problems. In June, a teacher at an elementary school in Seoul received a series of complaints and lawsuits from parents after giving a cleaning penalty to a student who hadn't done his homework. Although the cleaning penalty was a classroom rule made after consultation with the entire class, the student and their parents perceived it as mistreatment and took legal action against the teacher. This shows that teachers are suffering even when they are conducting proper educational behavior. These kinds of situations have led to the phenomenon of "homeroom teacher avoidance" as they are reluctant to be assigned that role. Illustrating this, the principal of an elementary school in Ansan said, "10 years ago, many teachers who volunteered to be homeroom teachers tried a variety of ways to guide students correctly. However, in recent years, due to the increasing number of complaints, many teachers want to stay quiet and avoid conflicts with students and parents."1) This suggests that conflicts with students and parents are causing teachers to adopt a passive approach to providing students with the appropriate education. As such, teachers who are supposed to be leading the way in education are facing the problem of infringement of their rights, leading to a hindering of the development of the education system.
What gets in the way of teachers' safety?
One factor for the violation of teachers' rights is the current system that overburdens them. Teachers' main duties are to prepare lessons along with providing student guidance, performance assessment, and curriculum restructuring. However, they are reportedly overworked as they take on administrative tasks outside of their duties. According to the results of a survey on improving teacher working conditions released by the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU) in April, "excessive administrative tasks unrelated to teaching" such as accounting and facility management were the main reasons why teachers felt their rights were violated. This suggests that they are feeling overwhelmed in the workplace due to being assigned excessive duties out of their scope. The reason for this high workload is that the Ministry of Education's policy direction is result-oriented. In particular, the Ministry of Education regularly conducts school evaluations for each school and provides funding for various projects based on the school's performance. In order to achieve good results in this evaluation, teachers are required to produce official documents and apply for various projects. Jung On, chairman of the Elementary School Teachers' Union, said, "Teachers are currently sacrificing class time to deal with excessive and suddenly imposed tasks. This leads to burnout and a decline in the quality of education, so we need to distinguish between what teachers should do and what they shouldn't do."2) In other words, a system should be established that allows teachers to focus solely on teaching. It seems necessary to clarify the scope of teachers' work so that their teaching activities are not impeded by work outside of that.
The legal provisions, which do not consider the nature of the teaching profession, also add to the teachers' difficulties. Paragraph 5 of article 17 of the Child Welfare Act prohibits emotional abuse that harms a child's mental health. However, the scope of 'emotional abuse' is not specified, so it can lead to indiscriminate reporting of even legitimate teaching behavior, resulting in teachers being falsely accused. What makes it even more problematic is that the fact that a report is made can result in a teacher being removed from their job. This not only temporarily removes them from their job, but also puts them at a further disadvantage in terms of promotion and pension calculations when they return to work. These indiscriminate reports hinder teachers' action to guide students' behavior. There are concerns that potential effects of the amendments could violate students' rights. One parent from Daejeon said, "I understand the difficulties of teachers. However, there are many children who are not properly protected even though there is a law against child abuse, and I am very wary about amending the law without considering this, as it may create more blind spots."3) It highlights the idea that reforming the law based solely on the fact that teachers are victimized may reduce protection for those students who are abused by teachers. As such, the issue of revising the current law needs to be considered from both the perspective of teachers who want to conduct educational activities and students who have the right to be protected.
In various situations where teachers' rights are violated, education protection committees serve as tools for protecting them. The aim is to punish students for impeding educational activities and to mediate disputes. However, as these committees must be approved by a principal, it is difficult to set them up if there isn't an active attitude of principals toward resolving the problem. This means that the decision to set up a committee depends on the subjective judgment of the supervisor, not the victim. According to a survey on infringement of teachers' rights released by the KFTA in 2022, only 2.2% of the 8,665 participants said that an education protection committee was held when a violation had occurred. This indicates that the tools that exist to cope with violence are nominal. Furthermore, even if a committee is set up and action is taken against the offending student, it is difficult for teachers to raise objections due to the power disparity between the teacher and those involved. This is due to the fact that on appeal, the defendant, which is the principal or the foundation, has more power than the plaintiff. About this, Kim Dong-seok, head of the teachers' rights and welfare division of the KFTA, said, "From a teacher's point of view, expressing a complaint is a difficult task that has to be conscious of the negative attention of the principal and fellow teachers, but if the target of the lawsuit is the principal, the burden on the teacher will be even greater."4) This suggests that if schools are analogized to workplaces, it is difficult for teachers, who are only individuals, to legally challenge their CEO. As such, the education protection committee is unreliable in its effectiveness, and practical measures to protect teachers' rights seem to be required.
Beyond the individual, for the education system
Violation of teachers' rights is also a problem in Japan, which has a similar educational environment to Korea. According to a survey released by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in July, 10,994 teachers took a leave of absence due to mental illness. These statistics show the reality that Japanese teachers are facing stress due to infringement of teachers' rights. In this regard, in Japan, parents who make unreasonable demands or make constant complaints to schools are called "monster parents" and are considered a serious social problem. They make demands that go beyond the scope of a teacher's duties, such as "My child woke up late, so I want the homeroom teacher to pick him up." Commenting on the situation, Professor Onoda Masatoshi of Osaka University, said, "The problem in Japan has grown because social responsibilities and demands on schools and teachers have increased unilaterally. The situation in Korea seems to be similar, with laws and guidelines that do not reflect the realities on the ground."5) This means that both countries need laws that work in the classroom to avoid placing the onus of problem-solving solely on school employees. To fulfill this goal, Osaka City has implemented a 5 level system for dealing with violations of teachers' rights. At the highest level, cases are handled jointly with the police, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Rather than telling teachers to deal with these issues on their own, the system is organized to distribute responsibility. There is potential for this to be applied in Korea with government support and the cooperation of various ministries. This overseas example can serve as a reference for resolving the issue in Korea, where it has become a social problem beyond the education system.
As the causes of the problems have come to the surface, the National Assembly has been proposing various policies to address them. Among them, an amendment to the Special Act On The Improvement Of Teachers' Status And The Protection Of Their Educational Activities was passed with the goal of promptly protecting the victims. According to the pre-amendment law, the costs incurred in the process of protecting a victimized teacher were to be paid by the offending student. In this case, the victimized teacher may have faced further problems if the offending student disagreed and took legal action, delaying an end to the situation. In order to prevent this, the amendment changed the system so that the school board would pay the costs first and then claim the right to compensation from the offending student. However, there are questions about the effectiveness of the amendment. This is based on the fact that the pre-amendment law has already been revised twice due to problems with the initial Special Act On The Improvement Of Teachers' Status And The Protection Of Their Educational Activities. Yoo Hyun-kyung, a member of the National Parents' Association for the Realization of Equal Education, said, "The biggest problem with the government's measures is that they don't address the problems in the education system, and only offer limited measures centered on problematic parties. An overall transformation of the faulty public education system is a prerequisite."6) This implies that rather than reacting to incidents of violations by rewriting the law, there is a need to understand why past reforms have not worked and to devise fundamental solutions. They argue that a discussion committee should be set up that includes students, teachers, and parents to establish a standard set of rules that all parties agree on. There are voices calling for measures that reflect real communication, rather than simply amending the law whenever a violation occurs.
In order to prevent teachers from being falsely accused of child abuse, the Ministry of Education has established a standard for teachers' student life guidance. This details the methods and scope of life guidance, and in particular, specifies that teachers can physically restrain students who may cause physical harm to them. While this is designed to encourage teachers to be proactive in dealing with interruptive behavior, it has been criticized for not considering the student's perspective. Critics said that the physical restraint provision of the notice identifies students as the only inflictor of interruption. Cho Young-sun, an activist at the National Association of Teachers and Students for Student Rights, said, "Physical restraint is habeas corpus in the context of the police. Even the police can only do this if they have a warrant, but physical restraint, which is artificially applied by teachers in class, becomes an excuse for physical violence against students."7) This shows that in practice, teachers' arbitrary judgment can lead to the violation of students' rights, rather than the method and scope of instruction stipulated in the guideline. It also means that rather than creating an environment where teachers do not have to use physical restraint, prescribing physical restraint is far from protecting teachers' rights by increasing their responsibilities. As various opinions are expressed on the effectiveness of the measures that have emerged for the protection of teachers' rights, it seems that a fair solution that doesn't violate anyone's rights is important in solving this problem.
Still a long way to go
The violation of their rights that teachers are experiencing in the classroom does not have a single factor. Loopholes in the education system, excessive workload, and many other factors contribute to the problem. In this regard, the government has announced various policies to protect teachers' rights, but there is a need to discuss the problems that may arise when they are applied. In order to relieve the teachers who are being harmed, it seems that a solution needs to be devised that can improve the system from the perspective of protecting the entire community.
1) Kim Eun-jin, "Teachers Say They're "Avoiding Homeroom" now...blame It on Encroaching Teacher Power", EDAILY, January 23, 2023
2) Ji Seong-bae, "91% Of Teachers 'Overburdened With Administrative Tasks'... Teachers' Organizations, Ministry of Education Unite in Saying "No More of This"", Education Plus, August 12, 2021
3) Choi Yun-seo, "Pros and Cons of Child Abuse Immunity "Prevent False Reports" vs "No Child Abuse Exception"", Chungcheong Today, May 31, 2023
4) Choi Ja-yeon, "The Education Protection Committee...teachers Have No Way to Appeal", MoneyS, August 12, 2023
5) Choi Jin-ju, "[Interview] "Demonizing Parents Isn't the Solution" Lessons From Japan, Experienced the Collapse in School System", HANKOOK ILBO, July 31, 2023
6) Park Ju-yeon, "A Dying Education System, Will They 'Tinker' Again?", ilda, August 23, 2023
7) Lee Young-il, ""Riddled With Student Rights Violations," 31 Civil Society Organizations Call on the Ministry of Education to Scrap Guidelines", ohmynews, August 24, 2023