On July 23, the International Strategy Center’s Policy and Research Coordinator Dae-Han Song met with the Secretary General of the Seoul Gang-Seo Elementary Schools Branch of the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union (KTU) Jung Ki Young who is also a teacher at the Shineun Innovation Elementary School. We discussed the KTU’s history and its struggles to transform Korean education.
Can you briefly tell us about the history of the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union?
There were some stirrings among teachers ever since Park Chung Hee, but we made our big debut as an organization after the 1987 Great June Uprising with the formation of the National Teacher’s Association. In 1989, we became the Korean Teacher and Education Worker’s Union. In response to the formation of our union, the government fired 1,527 teachers. It sent shockwaves through the public. Teachers, who had some of the stablest jobs, had been fired en masse just for starting a union. It was the first time something like this had ever happened. They were eventually re-instated 3-4 years later when Kim Young Sam took office. Yet, during the period they were unemployed, the employed teachers supported them while they actively built up the union. We became a legal union recognized by the school system in 1999. In our heyday, we numbered 100,000. Now, we are about 60,000. And as you know, repression started with the Lee Administration, and it has continued to today under the Park Administration who stripped us of our union status in June.
Why the repression during the Lee and, now, under the Park Administration?
Well, our goal is to reform the education system. We are fighting for “true education.” Among our demands is one for greater transparency in the management of private schools. Private schools carry a lot of debt. Behind the private schools are the chaebols who use the schools to money making ventures and as a way to launder their money. So the KTU has been in the forefront of demands for greater transparency in these schools. With over 60,000 members who are public servants and regular workers, we are a fairly powerful union. So, of course we can’t but incur the hatred of those in power. The bill for greater transparency in private schools has yet to pass the National Assembly.
What is “True Education”?
Korea’s education was shaped by the industrialization of the 70s and 80s. Its purpose was training industrial workers. It wasn’t about the love of learning and knowledge; it was all about doing well in the university entrance examination. From elementary to high school, the goal was getting into college. As education became all about grades and exam scores, the kids that didn’t do well would give up; parents would obsess about grades; teachers would simply focus on the kids that did well.
People say things have changed. Maybe, but the overall framework still remains the same. The driving mind-set of students is still about competition. How can I beat the other students around me and become number one so that I can enter a good university. Now, more than ever, a student’s success in school is tied to his or her parents’ economic status and educational background. Since the 1980s with the explosion of private education, parents that can afford it, and even those that can’t, hire tutors for their children or send them to after school academies. They do anything that can give their children an edge up. And of course this not only burdens the parents financially but also the students that live under constant pressure and stress. There used to be a saying: “Even a black hen can lay white eggs.” In other words, even if your parents were poor, if you had talent and worked hard you could still go to a good university. Now, it’s just an outdated saying. Parents suffer under the great financial pressure; students suffer under the great academic pressure. When our society is so competitive and pressurized, of course we are going to have student suicides and violence. We want to change all this. We want to eventually get rid of the college entrance examination. That is what we mean by “true education.”
What is the alternative?
Well, we would come up with that together. Recently, with the trend of innovation schools picking up, there has been great interest in Finland’s education system which focuses on cooperation and group learning through discussion. After school ends, students focus on sports or their interests and hobbies. In Korea, even when school ends, students have to go to their tutors or their afterschool academies.
Why are we like this?
I think it has to do with our history. We suffered through Japanese colonialism, and then right afterwards through US military occupation, and then through dictatorships. In some ways, we never had the opportunity to become our own protagonists and create something for ourselves. We always just had to take things as they were. So, we just followed and believed whatever those on top said. And as capitalism developed, our education changed alongside it. In addition, many of those in power are not so squeaky clean. Many were collaborators during Japanese colonization, then state functionaries during the US military occupation and dictatorships. These are the types of people that are running our government.
What do parents and students think about all this?
In the June 4th regional and municipal elections, progressives won 13 (out of the 17) superintendents of education seats. I think this reflects a shift in parents’ consciousness. Yet, while a lot has changed, parents’ mentalities has also remained the same. I teach at an innovation school. My students’ parents love that their kids are learning outside by farming, observation, and activities. Their kids want to come to school even in their days off. But, at the same time the parents worry: “Are my kids playing too much?” “Shouldn’t they be studying more?” They worry about their kid’s scholastic abilities. “How much do they know?” “How well can they solve problems?” And it makes sense that they worry and think like this. After this innovation school, they will have to survive in a regular school. This is all they know. Because this is how things were always done.
Can you talk about innovation schools?
While it’s only recently become popular, innovation schools actually have a much longer history. They first emerged in Gyeonggi Province. In many of the small towns and cities, as people moved away from farming and into larger cities, you start to see a disappearance of students. As a result, the local governments start to close down schools or merge them together. To counteract this trend, KTU teachers started going to these schools. They wanted to go there and create something different from our current education. For example, students would work together with farmers, parents, and local communities to organize and run a festival. It wasn’t just about a school as a school, but a school as part of a community. They would farm with their students and hold lessons outside. When the city put out a call for projects, the school would submit a proposal and create an orchestra. As word got around about these schools, many of the students living in the cities that couldn’t adjust to their traditional schools would come seeking out these schools. All of a sudden, you start to see an increase in the number of students. So we started to save these schools. That was the “save the small schools” movement by the KTU. Eventually, the Superintendent of Education in Gyeonggi, Kim Sang Gon, noticed this and realized that if nurtured well, this type of education could become big. So, he named this movement “innovation education.”
For example, in the innovation school where I teach, we don’t “teach to the test.” Rather, we are an arts and culture program that uses woodwork and theater to teach students. We let them touch and play with things.
What has been the impact on students of this innovation education?
In Gyeonggi Province, it’s been about 6 years. Did it succeed? Did it fail? It’s too early to tell. Recently, they chose a few random innovation schools and did surveys through random sampling. The results are promising. Compared to other kids, those in the innovation schools had a greater confidence about their mastery of the knowledge. They also had a greater sense of accomplishment and felt more positive about their futures.
What do you think is the connection between education and democracy?
That’s a hard question. One thing everybody mentions about the Sewol Tragedy is that the students were told to stay put as the ship was sinking. Now, I’ve been teaching elementary school for about 15 years. It aches my heart to reflect back in all those times when I told my students to just be quiet and sit down, or told them to just follow the rules, or to just stay put. There was so much to teach, yet so little time. There was only one of me, and many of them. A teacher has a certain ambition for her students about teaching them as much as possible. We want them to absorb knowledge as fast as possible. That’s because we also were students, and generally teachers were good students. That’s how we learned to study.
It wasn’t too long ago, when I had started to think differently about education, that I’ve started to find ways of creating hope with my students. How can I teach students to teach themselves?
The legal basis for the KTU losing its union status was its policy of retaining fired teachers as members. What is the significance of such policy to the government and to the KTU?
When KTU became a recognized union in 1999, our union charter contained a provision that allows fired teachers to still remain as members. At that time it was not a problem. There is, however, a Teacher’s Union Law which states that only employed teachers can be part of a union. In that regard, that provision in our charter clashed with this law. Yet, from our point of view, a law is not carved in stone: laws should change with changing societal conditions. We are saying that this law is not fit for these times. There is no case like this in the world. Even in the United States, substitute teachers, teachers, and fired teachers – they can all remain in the union.
Why is this so important?
Well, we are also workers, so we should have the same rights as other workers. The Railroad Workers Union is able to retain its fired members. This allows the union to support the fired workers financially. We are also the same. We are a worker’s union.
The last time that the Department of Labor told us that they would revoke our union status if we did not change our charter, we did a lot of soul searching. We decided to put it up for a vote: Should we change our charter or should we allow fired teachers to remain? 70% of members voted to retain the fired teachers. We were shocked at the level of support. So then we were like, we know what our members want. Let’s get it on.
So what’s next?
We see hope in the newly elected progressive superintendents of education. As innovation schools take off, this will create greater spaces for us to engage with parents, educate them about the work that the KTU is doing, and win them over to our side.