September 4, 2023
SEOUL – Teachers across the country are set to hold a de facto protest Monday to commemorate a 23-year-old teacher who took her own life in July, despite the government’s warnings of disciplinary actions.
About 70,000 teachers are expected to participate in the “Sept. 4 Rally,” according to an online community of teachers, to demand better rights for teachers in the classroom. In contrast, the government has announced that 30 schools nationwide — with Seoul having the highest number at nine — will temporarily close their doors as teachers plan to take a day off.
With the rally just around the corner, the government on Sunday afternoon held a closed-door consultation meeting with the ruling party to discuss possible solutions and measures to take regarding the teacher’s rally set to take place under the slogan: “A Day to Pause Public Education.”
Education Minister Lee Ju-ho also pleaded on the same day that teachers refrain from taking the day off to participate in the rally, vowing the government would push for a swift revision of the bill aimed at enhancing their authority and protecting their rights at schools.
“The Education Ministry also shares the same feelings as teachers in commemorating the late teacher and the need to restore the collapsed teachers’ rights. … (But) our students need teachers. (I would like) to ask teachers to keep students company and be by their sides (on Monday),” he said.
The minister was taking a softer stance compared to last week, as he previously warned that teachers participating in the rally by taking sick leave “constitutes an illegal strike.” The ministry later warned that school principals could face “serious disciplinary action,” including dismissal from their positions and even criminal charges, if they approve of the teachers’ leave. Teachers have countered the government’s warning by asserting they would participate in the rally voluntarily and that they have the right to use their leave.
On the eve of the rally, however, teachers’ communities plunged into deeper confusion on news that two more teachers had taken their lives over the weekend.
On Friday, a 38-year-old teacher with 14 years of experience at a public elementary school in Mokdong, Yangcheong-gu, western Seoul, died at her apartment building, while another elementary school teacher in her 30s in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province, also died in an apparent suicide Saturday. The two reportedly suffered from a high volume of work that resulted in severe stress, according to reports.
Following the back-to-back deaths, over 200,000 teachers and supporters on Saturday rallied in front of the National Assembly in central Seoul to commemorate the recent deaths of their colleagues and call for better protection of their rights.
It was the seventh week of major protests against the government for incumbent and aspiring teaching professionals. The previous week’s rally saw some 60,000 participants.
They also demanded a revision to the South Korea’s Child Welfare Act, which they argue allows parents to accuse teachers unjustly of child abuse. The group of teachers pointed out that the act remains ambiguous and that its emphasis on child protection could obstruct teachers’ responsibility in managing the classroom and disciplining students appropriately.
“Despite the efforts we’ve poured into demanding better teacher rights, we, once again, lost two more teachers. … What is the Ministry of Education, each education office and the National Assembly doing?” an unnamed teacher said before the protestors.
In light of recent deaths, the Education Ministry late last month rolled out a set of new class policies that went into effect Friday to allow teachers to remove students engaging in disruptive behavior to the learning environment and to confiscate their mobile phones if they continue to interrupt classroom operations and disturb other students from studying.
The ministry also said Sunday that it had decided to team up with the Ministry of Justice to establish a task force team dedicated to helping protect teachers from parents’ child abuse claims and ensuring their teaching rights.
In response to the measures, teachers have demanded more feasible measures, saying the scheme falls short of what they actually need in the classroom and, most importantly, lacks measures shielding teachers from parental abuse and complaints along with conflicts with high-handed parents — what they suffer the most from.