What They Said is a weekly series on the quotes behind the headlines.
The debate in South Korea over the treatment of school teachers and teacher authority is underway once more. The latest trigger was the suicide of a 25-year-old elementary school teacher on July 18 at Seoi Elementary School in Seocho-gu, Seoul. Her body was found before the school opened for the day. There was no suicide note but wild rumors began to fly about the cause of her suicide, mainly concerning her being bullied by a student’s grandparents, one of whom was a third-term politician. These rumors turned out to be untrue.
On July 19, the Seoul Teachers Union published a statement regarding the incident:
1. On July 18, an incident occurred at a primary school located in Seocho-gu, in which a teacher took her own life. She is reported to have been the homeroom teacher for first graders for the past two years.
2. News about the incident is rapidly spreading through various online communities, but at the time of writing, there has been no official statement from the deceased’s family or the school. It has been reported that the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education is aware of the incident and has convened a meeting to discuss measures to take.
3. According to a source, the deceased used to arrive at school by 7:30 am. When asked about her school life, the deceased would simply respond, “It’s about ten times harder than last year.” Even during gatherings with fellow teachers in the same grade, where the teachers voiced their grievances, the deceased stayed silent.
4. According to a fellow teacher, there was an incident among students in the deceased’s homeroom class in the previous week. Student A used a pencil to scratch the forehead of Student B, who sat behind Student A. Student B’s parents came to the school regarding this incident and objected to the deceased, telling her, “You are not qualified as a teacher,”” and “How on earth are you taking care of the children?”
5. Fellow teachers expressed dismay, stating that the deceased “was very considerate and always kept challenging matters to herself, silently carrying on with school life.” The death of the deceased is not unrelated to the current system in which homeroom teachers are required to handle parents’ complaints entirely on their own. Teachers nationwide feel deeply disheartened. The Seoul Teachers Union urgently demands sincere responses from the Education Office and Ministry of Education.
— Seoul Teachers Union, July 19, 2023
Angry teachers paid tribute to the deceased on July 20 (at a memorial service organized by the teachers’ unions, teachers, students, and local residents) and began to speak out about the treatment they have received from students and parents. The crescendo has turned into a kind of movement. Some have described parents filing child abuse reports over a teacher encouraging a picky eater to eat everything on their plate at lunch, or for a school not doing anything (as the school had no authority to do anything) about a nearby market, which a parent claimed posed a danger to students who had to walk through it to get to school.
Meanwhile, an unnamed official from the Office of the President claimed that young teacher’s suicide was:
“… an example of the collapse of education caused by an excessive emphasis on student rights through the Student Human Rights Ordinance, which was led and implemented by left-leaning superintendents of education.”
— The Office of the President (unnamed official), July 19, 2023
To this, Democratic Party member and former prime minister Lee Nak-yon demanded to know which official had made the statement and harshly criticized the government for sowing division:
“There was an unbelievable news report. Reportedly, a key figure in the Office of the President claimed that the tragedy of the young female teacher at Seoi Elementary School is due to the Student Human Rights Ordinance, which is part of the pro-North Korea faction’s scenario for the collapse of South Korea.
As it was an anonymous source, I wanted to overlook this, but I couldn’t. Because it reminded me of the president’s official statement about how those who advocate for the lifting of UN sanctions against North Korea were anti-state forces.
I ask the Office of the President. Who is this official who made such remarks? What evidence supports their statement? Does it align with or resemble the official position of the Office of the President? If not, what is the official stance? Why is there no explanation? If those entrenched in narrow-minded and biased views are in control of power and running amok, isn’t this a serious national crisis?
Shouldn’t healing the wounds and comforting the people be the priority, rather than ripping open scars and creating more divisions among citizens? Shouldn’t thorough investigation of the truth be a priority? Shouldn’t we view the relationship between teachers’ authority and student rights not as a zero-sum game but as something to protect and improve together? Only then will we be able to face the current educational crisis and handle it in a forward-looking and balanced manner, and resolve it effectively.
As we have seen in the Itaewon tragedy and the heavy rainfall, crisis management is not an ideological issue. It is a matter of the government’s fundamental obligations and capabilities. Turning it into an ideological issue and blaming previous administrations can’t hide one’s own incompetence, can it?”
— Lee Nak-yon, former Prime Minister, July 22, 2023
There is more news to come about the treatment of teachers and their crumbling authority in the classroom. But in the meantime, may the deceased rest in peace.