[Viewpoint] Forget politics and focus on teachingAround 1,060 labor unions sprang up between July and September 1987, the so-called great workers’ struggle period. This was a result of the strong nationwide demand for democratization in the workplace that started with the democratization movement in June that year. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions was established at that time and is still in operation today.
On July 17, the KT labor union, the third-largest member of the confederation, decided to withdraw from it, with overwhelming support from 95 percent of its workers. The media have reported that this reflects the antagonistic feelings of the majority of unionists, who are sick and tired of the extreme political strikes staged by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.
The Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, which is affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, has a lesson to learn from the KT union’s decision to withdraw.
On June 18, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union announced its “First Declaration on Current Issues,” a petition on issues that are not related to education, demanding the government give a reassurance of freedom of the press and assembly, stop railroading the media law through the National Assembly and clarify the government position on the Grand Canal Project again, suspecting that the government may want to revive it. The declaration was signed by around 17,000 union members.
The government is planning administrative measures, including severe punishment or even indictments for 88 teachers who played a leading role in promulgating the petition and warnings for others who participated.
In the midst of all this, on July 19, the union announced its second petition, called “The Declaration of Teachers for the Protection of Democracy,” with the signatures of 28,635 teachers. As the government is intent on punishing those who are involved, it’s become like watching two trains speed toward each other on the same track. It is truly a sad state of affairs.
Freedom of expression should be guaranteed to all citizens of the Republic of Korea. However, this does not mean that we should allow kindergarten and elementary or middle school teachers the freedom to express their opinions on political or social issues that are not related to education as a group. There are more than a few concerns about teachers getting deeply and collectively involved in political issues.
The first concern is that the field of education could become a political battleground. Educators need to maintain political neutrality, and the law restricts the political activities of teachers, so how will we manage the confusion and conflict that will arise if sensitive political problems are dragged into schools?
Some parents’ and civic groups, in front of students, are already blocking KCTU members from reaching work because they took part in the declaration. This is not a simple matter.
Second, the politicization of teaching would bring about public distrust in the educational community as a whole. As we see from the many confrontations between the ruling and opposition parties and from the violent situation at the National Assembly, Korean political culture is not yet up to the standard of advanced countries, and the debates of the pros and cons on the political issues raised by the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Unions still rage, too.
If school educators, who are supposed to maintain neutral values, continue to make declarations, revealing that the political and ideological thinking of teachers is instilled in students, the trust of parents in their schools will disintegrate.
This is why the law permits political activities by university professors, but limits those of primary school teachers. The government and the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union are debating the declarations’ legality, presenting different interpretations of the law. The legitimacy of the declarations and the punishments will be decided by the court, so all that is needed is to remain calm, and wait and see.
In the hope that schools will become free from political issues and debates, I would like to propose a few things to the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union.
First, I hope it will not instigate further conflict with the government and make efforts to avoid punishment and public loss of confidence due to political matters.
Second, I urge teachers to participate in goodwill competitions for reviving public education through class innovation and dedication to their profession.
Currently, the biggest pending issue in education is reviving public education and reducing private education fees. A teacher should speak through his or her class. The absolute majority of teachers are quietly dedicating themselves to education at school and working hard to be the model educators the times demand.
At a time when private education costs the nation more than 20 trillion won, if public education is revived through government investment in improvement of conditions, together with teachers’ efforts to enhance satisfaction in school education through innovation in their curriculum, any mistrust or complaints from the people about school education will naturally melt away.
I remind you once again that an atmosphere of respect for teachers and their authority is not something given by others, but something earned by individual teachers themselves.
*The writer is the president of the Korea Federation of Teachers’ Associations.
by Lee Won-hee