I realize that I am, and in some respects will always be, an outsider in the Korean education system. After all, I have yet to learn the language skills to communicate with teachers in Korean, to read the official policy, or to read reports and popular media in the original language. That said, some things just strike me as very problematic and very very cold. It's always a bit of a struggle for me to decide when to chime in with my opinion and when to keep my mouth shut. In terms of electronic media, I usually just keep my mouth shut. This topic, however, really bothered me- as it is literally a matter of life and death.
A Korea Times piece published this week addressed the suicide of a 15 year old boy who left a note blaming his death on five boys who had been bullying him at school. The writer tied this to the bigger issue of school violence in Korea.
President Park was quoted saying "the essential change in school violence will come only when teachers show affection to students and interest in them."
A close and caring relationship between students and teachers is a noble goal. Yet that last I heard, the average class size in Korea was still between 35 and 40. Moreover, high stakes testing and further proposals for merit pay (based on students' test scores) position teachers in ways that make the warm and fuzzy emotional aspects of teaching and learning less of a priority than the more immediate need to dispense information and offer effective test taking strategies. To my knowledge, there is nothing in standard teacher (or student) assessments that measure things like kindness, interest in students' lives, or an ability to mediate conflict.
I have worked with a lot of public school teachers throughout my career. In that time, I have met teachers who may not involve themselves deeply in their students' lives. I have even met a few who may not care all that much about their students. But this is by far, NOT the norm. Teachers in both the U.S. and in Korea (the two countries where I have worked in teacher education) care deeply about their students' well-being. Many teachers I have met spend an incredible amount of time worrying about individual students. These individuals not only go to extreme efforts to help students with their personal difficulties, but they are continually worried about how to address the needs of individual students without ignoring the needs of the other 35+ students. My guess is that those who taught the 15 year old boy who killed himself are extremely traumatized over what happened. To have government officials suggest that they are responsible for this seems downright cruel.
The only alternative offered in this article is to direct more funding towards the psychological well-being of students. This would mean, presumably, the hiring of more guidance counselors and the implementation of more professional psychological assessments. So the overall message in the article seems to be that the solution to the problem of teen suicides, bullying, and the larger culture of violence in Korean schools is in some debatable balance between greater teacher accountability and more funding.
I would like to suggest a different approach to the problem. It seems to me that one of the principle reasons that public schooling breeds such violence among students is because our schools are not specifically designed NOT to do so. The purpose of mass schooling in Korea and abroad is to differentiate between students- to place them on the educational and life path best suited to their individual ability. The outcomes of our education system cannot be separated from this competitive function. Students are placed in this system in order to compete with one another. Those who do well in school go on to do well in life, and "doing well" is a matter of doing better than everyone else.
I remember working in a high school in Daejeon a number of years ago. One day I noticed a piece of A4 paper taped to the wall, right at the front of the classroom. The paper contained a list of every student in the class, ranked in order of their latest test scores. The question that comes to mind is how can we expect our students to treat one another in a manner that is more respectful than the way we treat them? We place our young people, both in the classroom and on the national level, in competition with one another. It is a system in which students identify themselves according to how they compare, favorably or unfavorably, to their peers. This is the institutional tool through which they come to know themselves. Yet we remain shocked that students themselves invoke such hierarchies in their day to day school-lives.
Put simply, this is not an issue that will go away by pressuring teachers to "show affection" or insisting on widespread standardized psychological assessment. I would suggest that the violence we see in schools will continue (and perhaps escalate) for as long as we implicitly teach that school is a place in which to compete and to prove yourself better than others. This issue is rooted in the much larger function of schooling in general. Asking teachers to fix this problem with their individual efforts is akin to asking the crew of the Titanic to start bailing water. And throwing more psychologists at the problem is reminiscent of the practice of placing suicide nets outside the windows of sweatshops. It may alleviate some immediate problems, but it is just a means of avoiding the root of the problem. If we are serious about confronting the culture of violence in our schools, then we would do well to understand these problems as expressions of the system that we have created.