[Outlook]Re-educating the teachers’ union

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[Outlook]Re-educating the teachers’ union

‘The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union is facing hardship inside and outside the organization.”

These were the words of Jeong Jin-hu, the man who was elected to be the union’s leader next year, at a press conference. His statement shows he accepts that the union is facing a serious crisis, and that it needs to change.

But considering all the hardship and pain the organization has gone through, today’s crisis shouldn’t be especially hard. Next year will be its 20th anniversary. For its first 10 years, it was an illegal entity, yet it still carried out protests.

After the union was legalized, it still didn’t see peaceful times for the next 10 years. Based on its past, the teachers’ union may be more familiar with hardship than anything else.

However, the hardship it is now experiencing is quite different from what it has been through before.

In the past, when the union pursued democratization and humanitarian education, it didn’t need to feel alone. Even though the group could not speak out publicly, students, parents and ordinary citizens supported it.

But that support now seems to have disappeared. Public sentiment has changed, such that some parents even say they would prefer to send their kids to schools with fewer unionized teachers if they could. Union members have become less active in movements and the group is shrinking in size. It now has to worry about its very survival.

So how should the teachers’ union change?

People often say that its best bet would be to do as it did when it first started out. Going back to the pure, sincere goals of the beginning cannot be a bad option.

Jeong agrees. He has been appealing to members of the union to work together according to the resolution that the group made when it was first established. The foundation declaration said that the union should not fear outside pressure, but only the innocent smiles and shining eyes of children. The union members made a resolution to do what they knew was right for their pupils. Even after 20 years, this resolution has not been tarnished, and is still powerful.

However, it’s hard to shake off the worry that as the organization tries to go back to its old values, it will also fall back into its old methods of protest. As the group has itself admitted, it resorted to militant demonstrations as a means of getting its point across in the past. Such protests paved the way for the democracy and educational system we know today, but at the same time, the union lost the support of the people for the same reason.

It is now time for the group to rethink its protest methods. It must make a new beginning. It needs to strike out on a second round of its drive for humanitarian education and seek new ways of promoting its movement.

The people understood and accepted that the union had to use hard-line methods in its protests because it was fighting to take a central role in the nation’s school system. Members fought to rescue our education system, which had been degraded into nothing but a servant of the administration. They fought to abandon that role and to take control of what the nation’s children were taught.

Now, however, they have lost the cause behind the fight. These days, it would be tough to say that teachers are alienated from the school system.

Of course, there must be some reasons for teachers to argue that the same state of alienation exists. But a majority of our nation’s educators now indeed have a central role in the education system. Teachers, not the government or its policies, are regarded as responsible if the system begins to fail.

If the union keeps blaming the government for problems in our education system and continues to fight against the education authorities in order to win more benefits for themselves, it will never win the people over.

There are still many structural flaws in our education system, but the teachers and education workers’ union must take responsibility for those flaws as the central participant in the Korean education system. The union members fought hard to gain that responsibility, and now it has to shake hands with former enemies and brainstorm with them to improve education for the next generation.

Those who condemn the teachers and education workers’ union for harming our education system must help the union make a new start. They shouldn’t mistakenly believe that unveiling the flaws of the union is the same as revealing their own good points.

Infighting within the education field brings down every participant, and therefore the whole system. We must begin a discussion that will help us rediscover our passion for education.


*The writer is a professor of education at Chung-Ang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Gahng Tae-Joong
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