Condolences are pouring in after an elementary school teacher in Seocho District, southern Seoul, took her own life in a classroom earlier this week.
Teachers’ groups are also urging officials to confront the challenges faced by educators.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education confirmed Wednesday evening that a 23-year-old teacher who taught first graders was found dead at the elementary school in Seoul Seo 2 Elementary School on Tuesday morning.
The school immediately reported the death to the police.
She was found before school hours, and there were no student witnesses.
The education office added that police are currently investigating the case to determine the time of death and exact cause.
The education office said that no suicide note had been found at the scene.
Police said they believe she took her own life but are investigating further details.
However, her apparent suicide immediately drew suspicions that the teacher may have been harassed by the parents of a school bully in her charge.
The Seoul Teachers’ Union said in a statement Thursday that fellow teachers had reported that an incident of violence occurred between students in the class the deceased teacher was in charge of last week.
The union said that one student scratched another student’s forehead with a pencil. The first student’s parents reportedly came to the principal’s office and strongly protested the incident, saying that the deceased teacher “didn’t have the qualifications to teach.”
Education authorities and the school however warned against any premature speculations on the cause of the teacher’s death.
In a statement on Thursday, Kwon Seon-tae, Seoul Seo 2 Elementary School’s principal, rejected speculation circling on social media, saying that the student’s parent was not an influential politician and claimed that there had been no school violence in the teacher’s classroom this year.
“I sincerely hope that the teacher’s dignity will not be harmed due to unreasonable speculation, articles, and comments,” the principal said, stressing “all faculty and staff are actively cooperating with the police investigation so that the cause of death can be accurately revealed.”
The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations (KFTA), the country’s largest teachers’ union, issued a statement demanding a “thorough investigation to uncover the facts without anything held back from the education and police authorities.”
It added that it is “taking the current situation seriously, beyond the disastrous infringement of teachers’ rights suffered by one teacher and as a collapse of the entire public education system.”
The KFTA added it will mobilize all means “so that indiscriminate reports of child abuse and malicious civil complaints can no longer take a foothold.”
While students have gained more rights and protection through the banning of corporal punishment in schools in 2002, teachers on the other hand face difficulties in disciplining students and also managing complaints from teachers.
Another elementary school teacher was recently assaulted by a student in her sixth-grade class, beaten by him in front of other students dozens of times.
She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered from injuries that would take three weeks to heal broadcaster SBS first reported on Tuesday.
At the time, the teacher reportedly had been trying to persuade the student in the elementary school in Yangcheon District, western Seoul, to take her class instead of physical education. The student reportedly had anger management issues and had been assigned to undergo counseling for one hour in a special class for causing problems before.
She said she had been assaulted by the student in March and had been receiving psychological treatment since then and had told him she would sue him if he hit her again. But that only aggravated him more.
The student threw textbooks, scissors and other items at her and also swore at her. He also pinned her to the ground and stomped on her.
The student was reported to be around 160 centimeters tall and weighed over 70 kilograms, easily overwhelming her. She knew the student since he was in second grade.
Nonetheless, the student’s parents blamed the teacher for the incident.
In a statement to SBS, the parents said that their child was being medicated for depression and had below-average IQ, asking for special care.
They claimed that the incident occurred because the teacher had “discriminated” against their son and punished him, claiming that their child was the victim and that they plan to report the case to the education office.
The injured teacher is currently taking time off. She also plans to take legal action.
As of Thursday, more than 3,000 teachers have signed a written petition, claiming that the latest assault by the six-grade student against the teacher was a serious infringement of teachers’ rights.
According to the KFTA, there were over 1,249 cases of teachers being assaulted or injured between 2017 and 2022, based on cases reviewed by the School Teachers’ Rights Protection Committee.
In particular, cases of assaults on teachers doubled between 2018 and last year, going from 165 incidents to 327.
While teachers are already saddled with pressure from low salaries and excessive administrative work, weakened teacher authority in the classroom, especially due to fear of backlash from parents, and the lack of support from the school when parents file complaints, have done little to help teachers’ morale.
The KCTU found in a survey of 6,700 teachers conducted in May, ahead of Teachers’ Day, that only 23.6 percent of respondents were satisfied with the teaching profession, the lowest ever reported in the annual poll. Just 20 percent said they would choose the teaching profession even if they were born again, also a new low.
Since Thursday morning, over 300 wreaths have been placed in memory of the deceased teacher in front of the Seoul Seo 2 Elementary School gates, along with an outpour of letters and notes from various people expressing their condolences.
One note on the school walls, from a teacher, read, “I am sorry for not knowing the pain of a fellow teacher I work with.”
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education also said it would offer support for students and teaching staff experiencing trauma from this incident.
“As a person in charge of education in Seoul, I feel a deep sense of responsibility,” Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon said in a statement Thursday, referring to the teacher’s death.
Referring to recent cases where teachers’ rights were infringed upon, he said, “There is a rapid increase in malicious complaints and complaints that paralyze teachers’ abilities to provide guidance for students.”
He continued, “We take very seriously the reality that teachers’ legitimate educational activities are not protected.”
Cho said that “special measures must be urgently prepared” and that efforts will be made to amend the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment, etc. of Child Abuse Crimes to enable teachers’ better protection in the classroom.
Education Minister Lee Ju-ho said that there is “speculation that a teacher’s death may have been caused by a serious infringement of teachers’ rights,” which if true “poses a significant challenge to our educational system,” in a meeting with regional educational chiefs.
The late teacher’s relatives held a press conference in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education in Jongno District, central Seoul, alongside representatives from teachers’ unions Thursday afternoon, demanding to clear the facts.
“It must be clarified what caused such a young teacher to make an extreme choice at school,” her uncle said during the press conference. “We need to find out if the death has to do with parents’ abuse of power, malicious complaints or excessive work stress.”
If you or someone you know is feeling emotionally distressed or struggling with thoughts of suicide, LifeLine Korea can be contacted at 1588-9191. The Seoul Foreign Resident Center offers English-language counseling. Contact 02-2229-4900 to arrange a session. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]