[Viewpoint] Back to the classroom, teachers

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[Viewpoint] Back to the classroom, teachers

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology decided last weekend to take severe punitive measures against 89 leaders of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union who were behind the union’s release of two anti-government statements. The educational superintendents of cities or provinces to which the teachers belong must approve of the decision for the punishment to take effect. Nonetheless, the decision will certainly stir up the education community, since the union is already fervently resisting the ministry’s decision.

Many parents, students and other citizens feel frustrated at the whole incident and hope that it will never be repeated. They are more worried over the union’s militant protests than the ministry’s strict decision. The reasons the people do not sympathize with the teachers and education workers’ union are as follows.

First, the union’s statements, the core of the issue, are too politically charged. In the first anti-government statement, the union criticized the current condition of inter-Korean relations, the media laws and the government plan - now on hold - to build a grand canal. These issues have nothing to do with education, the primary duty and the career of the unionized members. In the second statement, the union mostly criticized the government’s punitive measures against those who signed the first statement. The union maintained that the incumbent government conducted an “anti-constitutional act” by abusing its power, and claimed this abuse was even more serious than when the country was under martial law.

Different people have different political opinions, and they may or may not agree with the union’s argument. Teachers have their political stances, too. The problem is, however, that the political opinions of some members were expressed as representative of the whole union, and that violates the law.

The Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union says that releasing a statement concerning state affairs was never a problem during former administrations. But they should remember that the last two administrations shared their ideology, so it did not bother to enforce the law against them as written.

There is an even more serious problem than the fact that the union’s release of the statements violated the law. When some teachers’ political stances are expressed as an explicit group action to the public, they can have a tremendous influence on the children who are their students. For this reason, in advanced countries it is illegal to teach students to believe in political ideologies or religions.

When the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union was launched in the late 1980s, it resisted the military regime and used education as a tool for political purposes, pursuing what it called “true education” and earning the empathy and support of many people. But recently the union, especially its hard-core leaders, seems to be trying to use education for political purposes in another way. That is certainly contradictory.

The union must prioritize education, as this is its members’ original duty. Years ago at a national conference, the union adopted a special resolution to revive our educational system and declared that it would focus on a daily education movement, a decision that was welcomed by the public. If the union presents ways to improve the quality of education at schools and maintains that we should boost the competitiveness of our education and try to cultivate students’ character, their measures will earn more support than any other government policies.

The executive department of the education union must refrain from extreme protests. They should try to understand how students and parents feel watching teachers who have shaved their scalps and wear bands over their foreheads, waving clenched fists and shouting frightening slogans. They must remember that they are teachers before they are union members.

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

by Lee Sung-ho

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