Teachers are held in very high esteem in South Korea. They are generally treated with more respect than their American counterparts by their students and society and are addressed with the honorific term. According to Time magazine teachers and principals endure rigorous evaluations — which include opinion surveys by students, parents and peer teachers. Low-scoring teachers are required to take additional training.

Although primary- and secondary-school teachers traditionally enjoyed high status, they often were overworked and underpaid during the late 1980s. Salaries were less than those for many other white-collar professions and even some blue-collar jobs. High school teachers, particularly those in the cities, however, received sizable gifts from parents seeking attention for their children, but teaching hours were long and classes crowded (the average class contained around fifty to sixty students). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “One of the crucial problems has to do with dispiritedness among teachers with their class sizes, workloads and, worst of all, examination-oriented schooling. Teacher morale should be restored by strengthening professional preparation and by offering teachers better working conditions, which are commensurate with traditional respect for teachers. In-service training should be provided and innovative teaching materials and methods encouraged and rewarded. Teachers' unions, which have recently become officially recognized, will contribute to ameliorating the situation. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

In the early 2000s, there were 122,743 primary teachers, 192,947 secondary teachers and 114,231 higher education teachers. The student-teacher ratio was 31.1 in primary schools and 25.1 in secondary school. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Teacher salary in South Korea as a percentage of average per capita income: 250 percent, compared to 99 percent in the United States. [Source: OECD, 2001]

According to a survey by the Japan Teacher’s Union, South Korean teachers were involved in 9.3 activities (out of a list of 18) outside their regular class hours, compared to 11.1 activities in Japan, 5 in the U.S. and 3.4 in France. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 2007]

Teaching Hours, Ratios and Salaries in South Korea

Number of teaching hours per year in primary education: 676 hours (compared to 1,176 hours in Costa Rica, 1,004 hours in the United States and 747 hours in Japan. [Source: 2020 OECD oecd.org ]

Number of teaching hours per year in lower secondary education: 517 hours (compared to 1,014 hours in Mexico, 996 hours in the United States and 615 hours in Japan. [Source: 2020 OECD oecd.org ]

Number of teaching hours per year in upper secondary education: 545 hours (compared to 1,254 hours in Costa Rica, 760 hours in New Zealand and 511 hours in Japan. [Source: 2020 OECD oecd.org ]

Teacher Salaries in primary education: US$56,600 in 2019 (compared to US$31,816 in Costa Rica, US$61,415 in the United States US$48,760 in Spain, and US$77,638 in Germany [Source: 2020 OECD oecd.org ]

Teacher Salaries in upper secondary education:(compared to US$32,802 in Costa Rica, US$64,224 in the United States US$54,408 in Spain, and US$88,893 in Germany [Source: 2020 OECD oecd.org ]

Students per teaching staff in primary education: 16.5 in 2018 (compared to 11.6 in Costa Rica, 15.2 in the United States and 16.2 in Japan. [Source: 2020 OECD oecd.org ]

Students per teaching staff in secondary education: 12.8 in 2018 (compared to 13.2 in Costa Rica, 28.5 in India in 12.3 Japan. [Source: 2020 OECD oecd.org ]

Students per teaching staff in early childhood education: 8.5 in 2018 (compared to 12.4. in Costa Rica, 23.3 Mexico and in 14.0 Japan. [Source: 2020 OECD oecd.org ]

Teaching Profession in South Korea

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “All teachers have the status of national civil servants in Korea, and teacher training is centrally regulated. However, teachers' affairs are delegated to the superintendents at the metropolitan and provincial offices of education. University professors still enjoy the prestige given to teachers traditionally. Although teachers at the precollege level are no longer loved and respected as formerly, they are still considered key to the system's proper functioning. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“As part of the goal of excellence in the educational system and to ensure the sense of professionalism and commitment to teaching, licensure under legal criteria is required of graduates of teacher training institutes. Teachers are classified into teachers (first and second level), assistant teachers, professional counselors, librarians, training teachers, and nursing teachers. They must meet specific standards for each category and be licensed by the Minister of Education, as regulated by presidential decree.

“As attention is increasingly directed toward the quality of education rather than its quantity, general teachers' qualifications have become one of the core issues in Korean education. Many believe the teaching profession suffers from mediocrity and is often unable to cope with the fast-changing society. Lack of professionalism is diagnosed as due to poor training and to the difficulty of recruiting bright young people into the profession, which is little respected in modern Korea. Therefore, the goal of the 1995 Education Reform was to train excellent teachers who could meet the challenges of increasingly assertive students, the information age, globalization, and the changing field itself. The training programs emphasize pedagogy, ethics, and information management ability, as well as class management and counseling skills (MOE).

“Another incentive for teachers' dedication and high performance is a merit-based salary system based on the evaluation of individual teachers, which also has direct implications for promotions and various privileges.

Teaching Training and Recruitment in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Teacher education is offered by universities of education, colleges of education, graduate schools of education, general colleges and universities with departments of education and teaching certificate programs, junior colleges, and the Air and Correspondence University, from which approximately 25,000 teachers are recruited every year. To enhance professionalism in educational leadership, the government established the Korea National University of Education in 1985. This university was designed to conduct research on kindergartens and elementary and secondary schools, as well as to produce an elite corps of dedicated teachers — not only future teachers but also in-service trainees. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Teachers are recruited locally on the basis of apparently rather mechanical selection tests administered by district education authorities. College students concentrate on preparing for these exams rather than studying the subjects they intend to teach or other classroom management skills. OECD reviews have also found no direct links between teachers' expertise and the subjects they teach. Major fields in colleges and universities have not been found to match important subject fields in the secondary school curriculum. In 1995, about 55 percent of all secondary teachers came from universities that were not specifically designed for teacher education (OECD 136).

“The PCER thus recommended reforming teach certification and in-service training to encourage lifelong education and initiate diversified, learner-oriented education. The PCER proposed a contract teacher program, increased use of circuit teachers, and diversification and enrichment of in-service training (PCER 1997, 111).

“To make space for young talented teachers, the retirement age for teachers was adjusted from 65 to 62 in the fall of 1998. As a result, an estimated 16,000 teachers retired, and the vacancies were filled with new skilled teachers. Superior teachers among those retiring were invited to return to teach with fixed contracts. Many competent teachers with a variety of titles such as lecturers and business school partnership teachers have thus been recruited into the school system as well as teachers with fixed contracts and native speakers for language courses (MOE).

“Because most teachers are still very young, in-service training has become an urgent need. Various opportunities and incentives have been offered for those who were retrained. Between March 1997 and February 1998, in spite of the Korean financial crisis, 356,335 teachers underwent in-service training, including 545 who received overseas training. In higher education, the government sponsors refresher programs abroad, especially in science and technology to help professors keep up with the rapidly changing times. From 1978 to 1998, a total of 106 professors went abroad to do research with government support (MOE).Furthermore, elementary and secondary schoolteachers have also been given additional opportunities for overseas training and short term study tours.

Typical Day for a South Korean Teacher

Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle wrote for the Asia Society: “One teacher we met was a Korean American from Maryland who teaches conversational English. As he explained, students are rarely assigned written work either in class or as homework. His regular workload consists of five classes that meet four times each week, with an additional twenty classes that meet once a week. With a typical class size of 50 or more students, this teacher would have 1,000 papers to review weekly. He, of course, could not evaluate them and handle all his other responsibilities. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

“This teacher’s workday extends from 7:30 A.M. to about 5:00 P.M., with an additional half day on Saturday. Although a relatively long day by American standards, it leaves him with considerable free time and few responsibilities other than teaching. While he reported that teachers’ salaries are relatively high by Korean standards of living, we learned that teachers throughout the country have expressed dissatisfaction with their pay.

“This teacher confessed that he did not know if his students actually were learning English. There are no failing grades, but there are remedial classes, and students may attend supplemental education centers if they or their parents feel there is a need. Most schools give trial achievement tests twice a year to prepare students for college entrance examinations. In addition, multiple Internet websites offer the same services, helping students to gauge their own progress.

“Regarding instructional methods, this teacher has tried small groups and other nontraditional approaches to teaching but felt his students did not respond well, being unfamiliar with such methods and uncertain about how they were expected to perform. He therefore returned to lecturing, which he attempts to enliven with frequent questions. His many students seem amazingly cooperative, good-natured, and enthusiastic. A lively question-and-answer session directed by the teacher about students' images of the United States took place during our visit. As one might expect, they were most aware of international sports and celebrity figures, such as Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson. However, when asked what came to mind when they thought of the United States, many answered “freedom” or “the Statue of Liberty.” But they also asked about drugs, and if it was true that police patrol American high schools.”

South Korean High School Teachers

Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle wrote for the Asia Society: “Discipline problems were infrequent, and great respect for teachers was evident. Students bowed, as is the custom, when passing teachers in the halls and appeared hesitant to enter faculty offices. We learned that discipline cases are generally referred to the student’s homeroom teacher, who then talks with the student and his or her family. In addition to administering discipline, which may but infrequently includes corporal punishment, homeroom teachers offer counseling, help students with college applications, and maintain contact with parents. [Source: Richard Diem, Tedd Levy, and Ronald Van Sickle, Asia Society, based on 1996 visit]

“Most instruction we observed consisted of teacher lectures, with only rare interruptions for questions. If students had questions, they might speak to the teacher after class. There is considerable interest in computers. At the end of 1999 there was about 1 computer per every 23.8 primary and secondary school student and 1 per every 1.4 primary and secondary school teachers. The Ministry of Education planned to raise the ratio to 1 computer per 17.4 students and 1 per every teacher by the end of 2000. The computer laboratory we visited was equipped with about 50 terminals meant to serve 3,000 students, but at the time only teachers were in the room.

“We were told in 1996 that in years past when teachers informed parents of discipline problems, parents responded by sending the teacher either a small amount of rice as an apology for having caused the teacher worry and trouble or a switch for the teacher to discipline the child. Since 1999, teachers no longer have the legal authority to administer corporal punishment. This change has created some confusion as to the extent of teachers’ authority.

“Despite these differences, Korean teachers still have more responsibility for counseling students and controlling their behavior than do teachers in the United States. Korean culture grants teachers the same authority as parents and attributes them even greater responsibility for children's moral and academic development.”

Punishments, Discipline and Unruly Students in South Korean School

Corporal punishments has traditionally been uncommon in elementary school but was common in junior and senior high schools. Teachers used carry sticks and routinely kick, slapped, punched and beat their students and forced them to kneel, stand on one leg or raise their hands in the air until their limbs got numb. Bruises and bloodied noses frequently occurred and it was not uncommon for teachers to break bones and burst eardrums. Teachers often punished students in front of the class to set an example.

Choi Tae-hwan, an English teacher at Jeonnam Middle School in Gwangju, wrote in the Korea Times: “During the election of a classroom leader in a sixth-grade classroom, a student is listening to loud music on his cell phone even after being told to stop many times. The teacher has no choice but to take his phone away from him. He begins to swear at the teacher, shouting “Why did you take my cell phone away? Give it back to me.” How terrible it is for a student to heap abuse on a teacher using unspeakable words in class! However, the teacher has no intention of giving the student’s cell phone back to him. He hits the teacher on the chest and side with a chair, and verbally abuses the teacher, spitting out, “I’ll kill you by clubbing you round the head.” Have you ever heard of the above situation? Have you ever imagined that a student could have such a horrible relation with a teacher in a classroom compared with that of his parents’ generation? What a terrible day for that teacher! [Source: Choi Tae-hwan, Korea Times, August 5, 2011]

“Across the country, a great number of teachers are struggling to survive the so-called “Bomb or 1315 generation,” referring to children between 13 and 15. They have no sense of guilt or responsibility, with a lack of family education in a nuclear family and humanization education at exam-centered schools. The bomb generation is likely to be at the center of group bullying, school violence and even physical attacks against teachers in accordance with the ban of physical punishment at schools. Many of them are out of control. They are driven into the hell of exam-centered school life without any kind of reading and humanization education. A teacher has difficulty teaching them decent manners and obedience.

“Unfortunately, many female teachers are afraid to enter classrooms. They are sometimes at a loss over what to do in disciplining difficult students. They are also reluctant to instruct difficult students as they might risk punishment for disciplining them. It is natural that difficult students have a callous attitude toward school violence, bullying friends and sexual violence. They are not instructed and educated about what is wrong with their words, behavior and manners, both at home and at school.

“It is regrettable that students have a tendency to become both victims and attackers in school violence at a young age. They don’t hesitate to make excuses for their behavior, with 55 percent of attackers ? up 10 percent from 2008 ? saying their actions are “Just pranks, not violence, or have no rational reason.” As they become seniors, they tend to become callous toward violence. The appearance of a “classroom collapse and the bomb generation” is one of the terrible side effects of exam-centered education, lack of family education and a ban on physical punishment. Many students become egoistic, self-centered and violent, by talking back, swearing at teachers and becoming violent.

Let's keep in mind the maxim, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” The sooner we begin to stress the family role in strict education and humanity-based school education, the sooner children and students can learn manners and a sense of responsibility so that they will be the prop for the developed country of Korea in the next century.

Multi-Millionaire Online Teachers in South Korea

Cha Kil-yong is a popular online math tutor in South Korea who has earned the equivalent of millions of dollars. Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: “Clasping his headphones and closing his eyes as he sang into the studio microphone while performing a peppy duet with one of South Korea’s hottest actresses, spiky-haired Cha Kil-yong looked every bit the K-pop star. But Cha is not a singer or actor. No, he’s a unique kind of South Korean celebrity: a teaching star. And the song he was singing with Clara, a Korean mega celebrity, in a music video that wouldn’t be out of place on MTV? It was called “SAT jackpot!”[Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, December 30, 2014]

“In this education-obsessed country, Cha is a top-ranked math teacher. But he doesn’t teach in a school. He runs an online “hagwon” — or cram school — called SevenEdu that focuses entirely on preparing students to take the college entrance exam in mathematics. Here, teaching pays: Cha said he earned a cool US$8 million last year. “I’m madly in love with math,” said Cha, looking the height of trendiness in his crimson shirt and pants and tweed jacket, in his office in Gangnam — a wealthy part of Seoul famous for its conspicuous consumption and featured in the song “Gangnam Style.”“

Cha started “teaching at a hagwon to pay his way through his PhD program. About 300,000 students take his online class at any given time, paying US$39 for a 20-hour course (traditional cram schools charge as much as US$600 for a course). He teaches them tricks for taking the timed exams, including shortcuts that students can take to solve a problem faster. Asked what makes him stand out, Cha said: “Suppose you give the same ingredients to 100 different chefs. They would make different dishes even though they’re working with the same ingredients. It’s the same with a math class. Even though it’s all math and all in Korean, you can use different ingredients to come up with different results.”

“His studio is set up with a green chalkboard and desks, and behind the camera are piles of props — including hippo and Batman masks and a gold sequined jacket. “You’re not only teaching a subject, you also have to be a multitalented entertainer,” said Cha, declining to give his age and offering only that he’d been working for 20 years. On SAT day, he visits schools to offer encouragement to test takers. He also does television ads, endorsing products such as a red ginseng drink meant to boost brain power.

Kwon Kyu-ho, a top-ranked literature teacher, also appears with K-pop stars and has a lucrative side business in celebrity endorsements, lending his name to a chair meant to help people study better. Maintaining his position doesn’t require just good lessons. Kwon, 33, also gets regular facials and works out, and he said some teachers even have stylists.. “I always wanted to be a teacher, but I feel that regular school teaching has its limits. There is a certain way you have to teach,” said Kwon, whose lessons appear on the sites Etoos and VitaEdu. “And, of course, I’m making a lot more money this way.”

“He wouldn’t disclose how much he earned, only that it was “several millions” of dollars a year. The secret of his success, Kwon said, was finding the parts of tests that make most students stumble. He focuses lessons on those problem areas. This style of education has its upsides, he said. “I think one of the benefits of private education is that teachers compete with each other and try to develop higher quality content,” he said. “We have money. We can invest in ways that normal schoolteachers can not.”

South Korean English Teacher Makes US$4 Million A Year

Some Korean tutors earns million of dollars a year through teaching via paid Internet video in the hagwons. Amanda Ripley wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Kim Ki-hoon earns US$4 million a year in South Korea, where he is known as a rock-star teacher—a combination of words not typically heard in the rest of the world. Mr. Kim has been teaching for over 20 years, all of them in the country's private, after-school tutoring academies, known as hagwons. Unlike most teachers across the globe, he is paid according to the demand for his skills—and he is in high demand. [Source: By Amanda Ripley, Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2013]

“Kim Ki-Hoon, who teaches in a private after-school academy, earns most of his money from students who watch his lectures online. ‘The harder I work, the more I make,’ he says. ‘I like that.’ Mr. Kim works about 60 hours a week teaching English, although he spends only three of those hours giving lectures. His classes are recorded on video, and the Internet has turned them into commodities, available for purchase online at the rate of US$4 an hour. He spends most of his week responding to students’ online requests for help, developing lesson plans and writing accompanying textbooks and workbooks (some 200 to date)…

James Marshall Crotty wrote in Forbes: “Kim Ki-Hoon is a contributor to, and beneficiary of, South Korea's high-tech, free-market approach to education. As “Mr. Kim” himself notes, “The harder I work, the more I make.”. Of course, it doesn't hurt that South Korean parents are willing to pay the extra Won to insure that their charges have access to South Korea's best and brightest tutoring talent. According to Edutech Associates, South Korean "parents with school-age children spend close to 25 percent of their income on education and all parents spend a large portion of their income on supplementary educational materials." That means big business for hagwons, South Korea's primary supplemental education providers. [Source: Amanda Ripley, Wall Street Journal, James Marshall Crotty, Forbes, Aug 11, 2013]

“It is a true meritocracy, where the best and the brightest – or at least the most popular and passionately engaged — end up being paid the most. Moreover, to maintain high standards of accountability and performance, a representative hagwon fires about 10 percent of its tutors every year. In the U.S., about 2 percent of public school teachers are fired for poor performance every year. The downside is that hagwon tutors receive no benefits and no guaranteed salary. The result is that for every Mr. Kim, there is thousands of hagwon tutors who make far less than their traditional brick-and-mortar peers do. It is a zero-sum system that would be written off as patently ruthless if it wasn’t so spectacularly popular.

“A 2010 survey of 6600 students at 116 South Korean high schools found that South Korean students gave their hagwon tutors far higher marks than their regular schoolteachers, and regularly regarded their hagwon tutors as “better prepared, more devoted to teaching, and more respectful of students’ opinions.” In addition, hagwon tutors are far more likely to experiment with new technology and nontraditional pedagogies, mainly because their pay hinges on the positive reviews that flow from improved student achievement.”

Teacher Corruption in South Korea

Many parents give teachers expensive gifts and large sums of money not for good grades for their children but rather for special attention and help in passing entrance exams. Most of the gifts have traditionally been given in March when the first semester begins and on Teacher Day in May. Some teachers have keep lists of parents who gave them money and how much they gave. The children of parent who give money receive normal treatment while the children of parents who don't give money or give just a little are ignored.

The practice is known as chonji. It is not as common as it once in part due to crackdowns on the practice. In the 1990s, investigators raided the house of a 54-year-old woman, who had been teaching for 32 years, and found 200 lipstick containers, a large pile of unopened gifts and list that recorded about US$5,600 worth of gifts. Some parents on the list had given her between US$100 and US$200 in cash four or five different times in the previous year. "My wife knows that bribes are not good, that they will harm the child and the teacher," one government worker told Newsweek. "But she says it's her duty to take care of our son, so she pays."

John M. Glionna and Ju-min Park wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Chonji don't always come in the form of cash. Sometimes parents sponsor school events or invite the teacher to lunch or dinner without the knowledge of the school. Some teachers make no excuses about accepting chonji. A parent wrote a letter to a Seoul newspaper claiming that she had offered a teacher a gift worth US$70 and that the teacher had suggested that it was not enough, saying, "I can only get a pair of shoes with this money." In light of the new government vigilance against chonji, many parents are finding new ways to ingratiate themselves with teachers, investigators say. Some send the bribes by online shipping or express delivery to avoid the long arm of the law. [Source: John M. Glionna and Ju-min Park, Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2009]

In the early 2000s, there was a scandal in which teachers were paid tens of thousands of dollars by parents to gain their children backdoor admission to some South Korea’s most prestigious universities. The scandal involved taking advantage of a special admission policy. In one case a teacher earned around US$500,000 in payments from 30 parents. Using forged certificates of graduation from overseas schools, the teacher was able to gain admittance of the students into South Korea best universities: Seoul National University, Yoneu University and Korea University. Principals reportedly have taken kickbacks from school uniform suppliers.

Teacher Corruption in South Korea: Who’s At Fault: Parents or Teachers?

John M. Glionna and Ju-min Park wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The acceptance of under-the-table chonji payoffs “have touched off a debate in this education-obsessed nation about who are the real perpetrators: Are they greedy teachers with their hands out or overly aggressive parents who will stop at nothing to promote their children? Is it both? In a recent government survey of 1,660 parents of school-age children, more than half of those polled cited parents' "selfishness" in putting their kids before all others as the main reason for the practice. Forty-eight percent considered chonji a bribe, as opposed to a harmless gift. [Source: John M. Glionna and Ju-min Park, Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2009]

“Accepting chonji is considered a crime in South Korea if prosecutors decide the amounts are large enough, but the law does not penalize the giver, authorities say. "Across the country, one of five parents says they have given chonji to teachers, and one of three in big cities says so," said Kim Jong-yoon, who heads a bribery investigative team for the national Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission. "This culture must be fixed and improved."

“Teachers say they are often unwitting victims of a parent's neurotic drive to seek favoritism for their child. "First of all, we do not defend or agree with chonji," said Kim Dong-seok, spokesman for the Korean Federation of Teachers. "But their investigation could get 500,000 educators condemned as a group of criminals."

Many South Korean parents consider chonji a necessary evil, an attempt to compete against richer or more influential families who already have an advantage when it comes to getting their children into the best universities. "I gave some chonji because of the concern that the teacher might treat my kid differently if I didn't give any money when other moms did," said one parent, who asked not to be named.

In 2008, “South Korea passed a law that forbids teachers to ever teach again if they are fired for taking money from parents. Investigators say statistics on the number of teachers fired for the practice and the number of parents who give money are hard to come by. Kim Dong-hee, a mother of two grown children, said she served on several school committees and favored a policy that barred parents from the classroom on Teacher's Day. "Competition in college entrance exams is too intense here," she said. "And teachers' subjective evaluations are more influential than objective tests. It is a culture of give and take."

South Korea Cracks Down on Bribery of Teachers

John M. Glionna and Ju-min Park wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In the end, it was just a simple box of cookies, an innocent gift to a hardworking teacher from an appreciative parent. But investigators had suspected otherwise. So they recently barged into a classroom in suburban Seoul to open the package in front of the baffled instructor and her students. Authorities were looking to intercept a bribe — usually a plain envelope stuffed with cash — given by overanxious parents seeking any classroom advantage for their children as they negotiate the highly competitive school environment. [Source: John M. Glionna and Ju-min Park, Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2009]

“Calling the practice” of chonji “an economic corruption of the classroom, authorities have announced 2009 as the year of the war against such bribes. On a national day to honor teachers. they have devised an unusual plan: On Teacher's Day, many schools will be closed and parents will be sent letters asking them not to visit their children's classrooms for at least a month.

Investigators have also stopped teachers on the way home from school to check their vehicles for chonji-related gifts. In one case, inspectors posed as parents to follow school visitors carrying envelopes and shopping bags. Kim said such tactics have brought results. One US$1.50 box of candy was found to contain hundreds of dollars.

Reforms of the Teaching Profession in South Korea

According to the Asia Society: Like other high-performing nations, teaching is a highly competitive occupation. Teacher preparation programs for elementary school teachers have a limited number of places and selective entry, while no limits are set for students interested in becoming secondary school teachers: all can enter a preparation program though only 20 percent find employment as secondary school teachers. Selectivity for the elementary program means that there is not much competition for jobs; elementary schools have barely as many candidates as there are teaching vacancies. Teachers work less than 600 hours per year, however, class size ranges to from 37-50 students. [Source: Asia Society]

Local teacher’s associations exist at the city and province level. The Korean Federation of Teachers Association (KFTA) is the central representative of these associations and meets annually with the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development to discuss teachers’ welfare. Three teachers unions also exist. The position of school principal has been held in high regard until recently when the teacher’s unions have begun to call into question the selection process and the verification of candidate’s abilities.

The Korean school system is a 6-3-3-4 system; that is, six years of primary school, three years of junior high, three years of senior high school and four years of college. The system contains national, public, and private schools. The administrative structure to oversee education consists of federal governance, as well as regional and local control. However, the system overall is highly centralized. For instance, the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development dictates the national curriculum, which, along with regional guidelines, only allows individual school principals to choose their own goals.

Low Birthrates Reduce Teacher-Student Ratio

The student to teacher ratio has dropped about 60 percent over 30 years. According to the state-sponsored Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI), the number of students per teacher fell to 18.7 at elementary schools in 2010 from 47.5 in 1980. The figure also dropped to 18.2 for middle schools from 45.1, and 18.2 for high schools from 33.3. “The fall reflects the extremely low birthrate and the sharp gains in the number of teachers between 2002 and 2003 as part of the government’s policy to promote the educational environment,” an official from the institute said. [Source: Han Sang-hee, Korea Times, February 6, 2011]

However, KEDI noted that the number of students a teacher is responsible for in one class still remains high compared to other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD average stood at 16 for elementary schools, 13.2 for middle school and 12.5 at high schools.

While Korea measures the number of the entire faculty including those who do not participate in the teaching process including principals, the international index only includes teachers who actually take part in teaching. When calculated this way, the figures for South Korea rises to 21.1 (elementary school), 19.6 (middle school) and 16.5 (high school).

Teachers Unions and Associations in South Korea

In May 1989, teachers established an independent union, the National Teachers Union (NTU — Chon'gyojo). Their aims included improving working conditions and reforming a school system that they regarded as overly controlled by the Ministry of Education. Although the government promised large increases in allocations for teachers' salaries and facilities, it refused to give the union legal status. Because teachers were civil servants, the government claimed they did not have the right to strike and, even if they did have the right to strike, unionization would undermine the status of teachers as "role models" for young Koreans. The government also accused the union of spreading subversive, leftist propaganda that was sympathetic to the communist regime in North Korea. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

According to a report in the Asian Wall Street Journal, the union claimed support from 82 percent of all teachers. The controversy was viewed as representing a major crisis for South Korean education because a large number of teachers (1,500 by November 1989) had been dismissed, violence among union supporters, opponents, and police had occurred at several locations, and class disruptions had caused anxieties for families of students preparing for the college entrance examinations. The union's challenge to the Ministry of Education's control of the system and the charges of subversion had made compromise seem a very remote possibility at the start of 1990.*

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The Korean Federation of Teachers' Associations (KFTA) is an umbrella organization for the nation's teachers' associations. KFTA was established in 1947 and, as of 2001, about 250,000 teachers are members (60 percent of all teachers). Its main tasks are to improve teachers' work sites, to conduct research on teachers and training, to protect and enhance teachers, to publish educational books, and to provide benefits for members. A special 1991 law on Improving Teachers' Status allows KFTA to negotiate with the government twice a year to improve the position of teachers. Among KFTA's publications are The Korea Education Newspaper (weekly) and New Education, an annual report on education (MOE). [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Forming nongovernmental teachers' unions was long illegal. But new legislation passed in January 1999 guaranteed the teachers' right to organize and bargain collectively, and the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers' Union commenced full-scale official operation. Thus teachers and educational workers at primary, middle, and high schools can organize unions at metropolitan, provincial, and national levels. Teachers' unions may bargain collectively on matters of wages, terms of employment, and benefits to improve their members' economic and social status. However, they are not supposed to exercise the right of collective action, in view of the special status the general public has historically bestowed upon educators (Koilaf Publications).

Teacher Groups and Politics in South Korea

The government has been especially sensitive about unauthorized professional associations among teachers. Many teachers, and some opposition political leaders, have been determined to reduce the state's control over the political views of teachers and the content of education. In early 1989, President Roh vetoed an opposition-sponsored amendment to the Education Law that would have allowed teachers to form independent unions. In spite of the president's veto, activist leftist teachers--numbering about 10 percent of the nation's primary through high-school faculties--announced their intention to form such a union. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The National Teachers Union (Chon'gyojo), inaugurated in late May 1989, criticized the Korean Federation of Education Associations as progovernment and weak in protecting teachers' rights. The Ministry of Education responded by dismissing more than 1,000 members of the new union in the spring and summer of 1989, resulting in the eventual withdrawal of more than 10,000 additional teachers. *

The Agency for National Security Planning conducted a well-publicized investigation into the union's ideology, with the implication that members could be charged with aiding an antistate organization under the National Security Act. Police broke up pro-National Teachers Union rallies; members participating in a signature-gathering campaign to support the union were charged with traffic violations. Eventually, several teachers' union leaders received prison terms on various charges. The Ministry of Education produced new guidelines that permitted teachers' colleges to deny admission to students with activist records and that allowed district education boards to screen out "security risks" when testing candidates for employment. These measures effectively halted the activities of the National Teachers Union.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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