Friday, August 15, 2014

Teachers in South Korea

Remember a few years ago there was a repeated talking point about how teachers are treated in other countries? Heck, the 2011 State of the Union address included this bit of cheerleading-

Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom.  In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.”  Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.

Well, maybe not.

On the one hand, South Korean teachers are paid well compared to the US-- extremely well as their career continues. Turns out that teachers in South Korea are free to be treated with respect as long as they stay in place and behave themselves.

Korea's top teacher association, the Korean Federation of Teachers' Associations, traces its routes back to 1947; however, nobody seems to think of them as an actual union.  But in 1989, teachers formed a new, feistier union, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU). The government didn't much like the idea then, and they've kept right on not liking it ever since. The union has spoken out on educational issues, including a call to end standardized testing. In response, the government has looked for reasons to shut the union down.

There are about 360,000 teachers in South Korea. About 94,000 of those belonged to this union at one point, but in recent years membership has dropped considerably. Government has kept up pressure, taking actions such as occasionally publishing the list of all the union-affiliated teachers.

The South Korean government has found a variety of creative ways to squeeze the union, including demanding that the full time staffers of the union all get back to the classroom. Union offices were raided and the KTU was accused of making anti-government statements (yes, if you imagine that South Korea is some sort of free and open democratic paradise, I have more bad news for you). And last fall the labor Ministry made a more aggressive move. South Korean law says that trade union membership is restricted to workers actually working in the workplace. The KTU was found to include nine fired members still on their logs.

KTU leadership points to their opposition as politically motivated.

“When she [President Park Geun-hye-- yes, South Korea's president is a woman] was a lawmaker seven or eight years ago she said one harmful insect makes the Korean Peninsula red. It is exactly what she has in mind about the teacher’s union,” says Hwang Hyun-Su, the KTU international secretary. “She thinks that the teacher’s union members are just followers of North Korea or something. It is very old fashioned thinking that exists among Korean conservatives.”

In other words, the union is just a bunch of North Korea-loving commies. Korea's teachers are supposed to be politically neutral. It's not hard to see why the KTU might not be beloved by conservatives.

In the KTU manifesto it says that they believe the Korean education system “cultivates students who are selfish and obedient; we do not teach them to be independent human beings who live collaborating and fulfilling lives.” It also calls for teachers to develop students that can “carry out democratization and destroy all vestiges of the decades of military dictatorships, and who can achieve the reunification of Korea.”

The KTU was still protesting its illegitimate states this summer, and they have successfully overturned a government-imposed shutdown in the past. In the meantime, the nation builders of South Korea are being encouraged to sit down, shut up, and do as they're told.

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