Thousands of teachers gathered in Seoul to protest after the suicide of a 23-year-old teacher, which they attributed to the immense pressure and harassment educators face in the nation’s education system.
About the teacher’s suicide: The 23-year-old elementary school teacher was found dead in an apparent suicide on campus in July. Cho Hee-yeon, the metropolitan education office superintendent, initially labeled her death as “an unfortunate decision to take an extreme choice,” which is a euphemism for suicide in South Korea.
“Based on the teacher’s diary and results of interviews with their colleagues, the (investigation) found out that the teacher had a problematic student and was having difficulties running the homeroom, and the teacher had a lot of work as it was the beginning of the semester,” Cho said, according to CNN.
A dispute between two students reportedly played a factor in the teacher’s death. The parents of both students involved attended a meeting with the teacher. The teacher later received “multiple phone calls” from a parent and had felt “uncomfortable and anxious about how the parent found out their personal mobile number,” according to the education vice minister. Details including the teacher’s cause of death or the exact events that led to it have not been released.
About the rally: Around 200,000 protesters participated in the rally on Saturday, and an estimated 50,000 teachers held a strike in the capital to commemorate the deceased teacher despite initial warnings that striking would be “illegal.” The teachers are speaking out against harsh demands and harassment from disgruntled parents, advocating for legal reforms and greater protections.
“They studied hard to go to education schools and became teachers because they loved children,” Jung Chai-jin, a 67-year-old who visited the deceased teacher’s memorial, told Reuters. “And they have to die like this in the classroom?”
The controversial child abuse law: Teachers complained about their inability to discipline students due to the fear of being reported by parents under a controversial child abuse law introduced in 2014. The law allows anyone to report suspected child abuse without providing evidence, making teachers vulnerable to unfair allegations. The teachers are demanding changes to the child abuse law and greater autonomy in their classrooms.
“There are so many difficulties in teaching children in the classroom because teachers are not given authority,” an anonymous teacher of 10 years told CNN. “Although the Child Abuse Prevention Act was created with good intentions to protect children, it is subject to very vague standards.”
Government action: According to government data, approximately 100 public school teachers in South Korea, primarily elementary school teachers, took their own lives from January 2018 to June 2023. While the data does not specify the exact reasons for these suicides, many in the education community attribute them to the pressures and challenges associated with their jobs.
President Yoon Suk-yeol has expressed support for addressing teachers’ concerns. “We should take the voices raised by teachers last weekend seriously, and make every effort to establish teaching authority and normalize the educational field,” he said.
South Korea’s mental health issues: The protest and teacher suicides highlight broader mental health issues in South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate among OECD nations. In the nation, suicide is reportedly the main cause of death of those aged 10 to 39.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For a list of international suicide hotlines, click here.