In South Korea, suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers. It is the number one cause of death for young people since 2017, and the number of deaths continues to rise.
Popular media and expert surveys pin the blame on the country’s rigorous educational system. Students are not only weighed down by long class days and tedious hours of studying but also pile on cram work and tutoring sessions to ensure they are adequately prepared for the competitive Suneung exam: the gateway to college.
Most students opt to take the Suneung rather than using other variables rather than grades or extracurriculars, where it is hard to obtain consistency. For many students, the exam is their best chance to enter a prestigious college and gain access to lucrative career paths. To adjust to students’ focus on exam preparation, schooling focuses almost solely on test preparation.
Through this system, students are not the only ones who suffer. Adults with a stake in the educational process—namely, teachers and parents—struggle with managing the extreme pressure on students for the sake of the exam.
Last summer, a Seoul elementary school teacher was found dead in an apparent suicide on school grounds. Prior to her death, teachers allege she suffered from invasive abuse from the parents of her students. The aftermath of her death saw a huge surge in protests and walkouts by Korean schoolteachers to demand justice for their peers. Many report suffering physical and mental exhaustion from their jobs; more than 100 public school teachers took their own lives between 2018 and June 2023. Teachers demand better support and protection from invasive parents seeking to win favoritism or other benefits for their child.
The main concern is the country’s Child Welfare Act. Teachers allege parents have abused the act to threaten teachers with accusations of abuse. Many suffer under the weight of harassment from parents desperate to get their children ahead of others.
A Korean teacher under the pseudonym Park Seo-yoon told The Guardian she once reprimanded a student for insulting a hearing-impaired peer. The offending student’s parents later accused the teacher of “favoring students with disabilities,” and lodged a formal complaint with the school.
The principal told the teacher to be more kind.
“They ask the teacher to apologize [for alleged wrongdoings] and then record it and let their children hear it,” says Seo-yoon. “If they don’t like a teacher, they file complaints under the child abuse law or request a new homeroom teacher.” This creates a situation where teachers avoid discipline altogether at the expense of fellow students and teachers.
Article 17 of the debated Child Welfare Act bans teachers from “committing emotional abuse against a child that may harm his or her mental health and development.” Teachers claim this vague wording allows parents to easily accuse teachers of abuse: parents can weaponize this against teachers simply trying to discipline students or refusing to comply with unreasonable parental demands.
An elementary school teacher told The Korea Times that her colleagues have faced accusations of child abuse for physically grabbing a student’s arms to prevent a fight, or calling out a student’s name for bad behavior. Accusations can discourage teachers from stepping forward in the future. These approaches further enable students’ disruptive behaviors.
The Korea Times reported early last September that three teachers, two elementary school teachers and one high school teacher, have recently committed suicide. This prompted an upsurge of existing protests and rallies that have plagued the country since the earlier incident of teacher suicide in July.
This conflict is a symptom of a larger issue in the Korean education system where extreme pressure on students extends to parents and teachers. To ensure teachers are treated fairly, the Korean government must not only enact laws to protect teacher rights but also find ways to lessen the pressure of the educational system overall.
The teacher unions demand legal reform and mental health support for teachers—some of which the government addressed this past September. The government recently expanded mental health tests and counseling programs for teachers, with a planned psychological testing tool for teachers in the works.
These reforms serve to address the effect, rather than the cause. The issues with the educational system itself—primarily, its fierce competitive nature—cause unnecessary stress on teachers, parents, and students alike.The system creates stress on students to perform well comparatively to their peers, which may indicate their rank on the final exams; stress on parents to prepare their children not just adequately, but exceptionally compared to others; and stress on teachers to maintain a safe, equal environment for students to learn despite facing students’ disobedience and parents’ harassment.
A solution to dispel this stress must address the competitive nature of the Korean school system. In a case study between the Californian and South Korean university system, Dr. Gi-Wook Shin from the Stanford Freeman Spogli Institute notes that California’s robust public university system places importance on admitting transfer students, first generation students, and underrepresented minority students. Although not all categories are noted in admissions, the three public university systems foster programs and pipelines that serve to encourage students to apply to universities in a multitude of ways; and most importantly, with second chances.
“UC schools, CSU schools, and community colleges complement each other to sustain a stable ecosystem of public universities in California,” Dr. Shin argues. “This stands in stark contrast to Korea, where schools in the Seoul metropolitan area engage in a zero-sum competition…”
South Korea has no community college “transfer student” pathway; students instead retake the Suneung to raise their score, forcing themselves through an additional year of grueling study. Instead of progressing through further education and then reapplying, students must review secondary education material to pass the exam.
Splitting the system, as California does, by creating pathways as to which South Korean students can progress through education while obtaining a viable second chance at achieving admission into university could help resolve the issue of fierce competition.
This also serves to relieve pressure on students and teachers in primary and secondary school years; the prospect of a second chance may ease parents’ stress. By creating avenues for regional public university students to transfer to Korea’s top universities, such as Dr. Shin suggests, or opening other pathways from local colleges, South Korean students can progress through their education rather than hold themselves back in the hope of admission to a top university.
Another issue is students’ and parents’ hyperfixation on the highest-ranked universities. Overbearing parents fight to gain advantages for their children because education in Korea is a competition to reach the top. Colleges in the Seoul area enjoy an exceptional reputation and boast numerous opportunities for students, while graduates from regional universities are viewed negatively in the job market.
By dispelling the focus to various colleges with different strengths, Korean students can focus more on gaining admission to their preferred program in their course of study, rather than aiming to attend a university for its overall prestige.
Many students attend a top university with the goal of gaining a profitable job in Korea’s largest corporations. By contrast, only 14% of U. S. college graduates surveyed by Accenture in 2016 want to join a large corporation, while 44% aim to work in startups or smaller companies.
Despite the instability of startups, many smaller companies are more accepting to job seekers without prestigious university diplomas. Through a governmental or university-level effort encouraging students to seek out these newer companies and opportunities earlier in their careers, rather than focusing solely on large corporations, South Korean students may not feel as pressured to attain a diploma from a top university. This could alleviate the competitive nature of education at the primary and secondary level.
To solve the teacher crisis, South Korean officials must take a holistic approach that tackles the competitive nature of the education system itself. Teachers would benefit from a more comprehensive approach to the education systems’ problems, rather than implementing specific demands. Korea must implement reforms that support a more comprehensive and diverse approach to education for all stakeholders – teachers, parents, and students.
Featured Image: South Korean teachers rallying in front of the Korean National Assembly on September 4, 2023. Source: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images.