The downfall of teachers’ authority

The death of a 23-year-old Seoi Elementary School teacher in July 2023 sparked thousands of teachers across South Korea to demand proper protection of teachers’ rights. It also alerted Korean citizens to truly realize the decline of teachers’ authority. The elementary school teacher reportedly took her own life after expressing anxiety over complaints from abusive parents. After one student scratched another student’s forehead with a pencil during class, some parents had started to contact her through her private phone number to complain, reported the Financial News.

The downfall of teachers’ authority in Korea is not a new problem. The fact that so many teachers could easily sympathize with the reasons behind the death shows that they all have experienced similar struggles, including malicious complaints and overuse of legal accusations from parents. The problem has been neglected for too long and the recent death of the teacher was a sign that the collapse of teachers’ authority has reached its boiling point.

While several legal revisions led by the government are in process, important challenges to fully restore teachers’ authority still lie ahead, which are not restricted to legal solutions. In this article, the possible causes and solutions for the decline of teachers’ authority will be discussed.

A Distorted Love

The cause of the collapse of teachers’ authority is found in the parents. According to a survey done by the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association (KFTA), 99 percent of teachers agreed that “teachers are emotional workers.” When asked who gave them the most stress, 66.1 percent of respondents selected “parents.” This overwhelms the other answers -- students (25.3 percent), principals and vice-principals (2.9 percent), and educational administrative agencies/the National Assembly (2.5 percent). Thus, it is essential to analyze the prevalent motivation and sentiment of Korean parents in modern society.

According to Professor Chung Jae-jun of Sungkyunkwan University, the new generation of parents in Korea thinks of their children as “princes and princesses” who should be adored, cared for, and praised. The instances of parents’ complaints are truly astonishing. For instance, some parents demand teachers to go on a field trip once again because their kid does not stand out in the picture. These kinds of parents are commonly called gapjil parents. Gapjil is a Korean neologism referring to an arrogant and authoritarian attitude or actions of people who have positions of power over others.

Long Term Causes

One of the common explanations for this blind love for children is the low birth rate in Korea, especially since the 2010s, leading to an increasing number of families having only one or two children in Korea. Thus, parents are more prone to live a child-centered life, and they have begun to coddle their children excessively. They cannot accept any criticism towards their children, and cannot stand any chance for them to be emotionally hurt or dispirited.

The collapse of public education followed by the great development of private education is also indicated as a fundamental cause of the fall of teachers’ social status. In the past, teachers had absolute authority regarding curriculum education (handing over knowledge) or guidance of university entrance. Naturally, parents respected teachers’ authority regarding character education and guidance. However, as the private education market has greatly expanded, countless private educational institutions and internet lectures by famous teachers substituted or surpassed public education. The school has long become more of a place to complete compulsory education. As a result, parents are less dependent on school teachers, limiting teachers’ influence.

However, the reasons stated above are insufficient to fully explain the distorted love of parents. Alongside these social changes, legal changes have brought about the current environment in which complaints and lawsuits are common in schools.

Disempowered Educators

Since when did parents think of legal methods to confront teachers? Legal issues, especially the enactment of ‘The Students Human Rights Ordinance,’ were critical in affecting parents’ decisions. The ordinance was first enacted in 2010 by a progressive superintendent of education from Gyeonggi Province and has since been enforced by seven regional education offices, including that of Seoul.

While banning corporal punishment had a level of positive influence on protecting students’ rights, class discipline has been broken down since the ordinance disempowered the teachers’ right to guide students using adequate methods. Teachers could not stop the student who physically attacked teachers or bullied other students since the ordinance forbids all kinds of physical intervention and immediate discipline, even including non-physical guidance. Teachers could not take away cell phones even if the student was severely interrupting the class according to “freedom of privacy,” and could not wake students up during class due to the “right to play and rest.” Teachers could not freely compliment students in public since it was deemed as “discrimination” against the other students. The ordinance has also profoundly influenced parents’ way of thinking, leading parents as a whole group to gapjil—only they do not perceive it as gapjil. They believe that they are just demanding due rights, which are protected and justified institutionally.

The ordinance, promoted by progressive superintendents, is strongly driven by a political agenda of protecting the weak. The collective group of children and students was identified as the weak and the group of teachers as the oppressor, neglecting the fact that children can also potentially be agents of violence. This has led to a biased ordinance that neglects teachers’ rights.

Moreover, abstract and inadequate laws such as The Child Welfare Act have functioned as tools that enable parents to practice their distorted perceptions of protecting children’s rights.

The Child Welfare Act, passed in 2014, dictates that teachers accused of child abuse must be automatically suspended. Thus, teachers frequently suffer from parents who maliciously report teachers for child abuse to see them removed from their jobs. Also, the law includes highly abstract terms such as “emotional abuse against a child that may injure his/her mental health and development”(Article 17-5), which can be interpreted arbitrarily. In fact, restraining a violent child is frequently labeled as child abuse and emotional abuse. For example, according to the BBC, one teacher was reported for emotional abuse for taking reward stickers away from a boy who cut his classmates with scissors. Another teacher was sued for child abuse for asking a disruptive pupil to take five minutes in the bathroom to reflect on his behavior.

Parents’ malicious complaints are the main factor that distresses teachers. According to the survey by KFTA mentioned above, the highest-voted reason for mourning the Seoi elementary school teacher was “for system improvement regarding malicious complaints and indiscriminate reports for child abuse.” According to the survey implemented by the National Union of Teachers that surveyed 2390 elementary school teachers in Korea, 49 percent answered that they “experienced malicious complaints from parents.” They also feel “extremely disempowered,” as they are fearful of being called “child abusers,” and thus unable to safely discipline their students.

Currently, the Ministry of Education is rapidly providing revisions and enactments of laws and regulations since the death of the Seoi elementary school teacher.

The first main effort to protect teachers’ rights is the Teacher Rights Restoration Bill. Among four revised laws, the revised Teacher’s Status Act prohibits the removal of teachers from a position only because child abuse is reported, and requires further investigation and evidence.

The revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act stipulates that teachers’ legitimate guidance is not child abuse. Also, by implementing “student guidance notification,” teachers are given more authority to guide students. For example, they can guide students who sleep during class. Unlike before, when teachers could restrain or separate students only after the process of “advice, counsel and warning,” teachers can “immediately” restrain students verbally if they violate school rules, and in urgent cases (for example, causing threat to others’ lives and bodies), teachers can immediately restrain the students “physically.” Teachers can also remove students who disturb the class to a designated place, and if in need, the principal can request parents to take the student home.

While the efforts stated above are significant, more legislative tasks need to be completed. According to a KFTA survey of 5461 teachers in Korea regarding the effects of the new legislations stated above, many of them answered that they are still anxious about indiscriminate complaints by parents as well as accusations of child abuse. Thus, abstract concepts like “emotional abuse” in The Child Welfare Act must be clarified. In fact, 99.4 percent of teachers in the survey agreed that the law must be revised to exempt legitimate guidance from the threat of “child abuse” and 99.6 percent agreed on strengthening punishment for parents who abused complaints if teachers are proven innocent.

Restoring Rights

Thus, to fundamentally improve teachers’ authority, it is necessary to restore the authority of the school as the place for educating students to grow as a “whole person.” Teachers should be empowered to be able to genuinely educate students. The classroom should regain its essence—to provide a place for students to admit their mistakes, take responsibility for their own actions, and be polite to authority figures and peers. This is why the legal efforts stated above are so essential, to enable teachers to guide their students.

Along with legal efforts, a fundamental change of perception is needed. The death of the Seoi elementary school teacher has enabled the turning point for parents, students, teachers, and citizens to look back on their previous perceptions and reflect on the true meaning of the “rights” and “responsibilities” of each school member. It makes no sense to think dichotomously, separating students’ rights from teachers’ rights, because students and teachers are not in a zero-sum game. Accepting guidance and respecting teachers’ authority is not incompatible with protecting students’ rights and freedom. The parents must realize that students cannot be happy in a classroom where teachers are distressed.