Hundreds of thousands of teachers in South Korea are protesting following the suspected suicide of a teacher, believed to be a result of the pressure on educators in a country known for its high-pressure education system. The teachers are demanding legal reform and greater protections, claiming they face harsh demands and harassment from parents.
According to the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations, up to 200,000 protesters participated in a rally on Saturday. On Monday, an estimated 50,000 teachers gathered in the capital to commemorate the deceased teacher, despite warnings from authorities that striking would be considered “illegal.”
The teacher who died taught first grade at the Seoi elementary school in Seoul. The country’s Education Ministry and the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education conducted an investigation into the death, acknowledging the lack of protection for teachers’ educational activities and calling for special measures to provide more legal and institutional protections.
Education authorities addressed social media rumors surrounding the teacher’s death, including claims of a dispute between two students being a factor. The investigation revealed that the teacher received multiple phone calls from one parent and felt uncomfortable and anxious about how the parent obtained their personal mobile number. However, it was unclear whether the teacher faced any verbal violence from the parent.
Many teachers and educational staff across South Korea have expressed frustration at feeling unable to discipline their students due to fear of retribution. Recent reports of teacher suicides have heightened this anger, with ongoing protests leading up to the strike. Government data shows that from January 2018 to June 2023, 100 public school teachers, mostly elementary school teachers, died by suicide. The exact factors contributing to these suicides remain unclear.
The education community has attributed some of the blame to a controversial child abuse law introduced in 2014, which allows anyone to report suspected child abuse without evidence. Teachers claim they can be unfairly targeted by parents using this law to endanger their jobs. Over 60% of respondents in a survey conducted by the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union reported either being personally reported for child abuse or knowing another teacher who had.
The protest seeks to draw attention to the restrictions imposed on teaching and guidance in classrooms due to the current child abuse prevention act. Some parents abuse the law and file lawsuits against teachers for child abuse, further complicating the situation.