The Elementary school teacher appointment disaster is not an issue to be thought lightly of. With the government’s sudden proclamation of personnel reduction, hundreds of students of teachers’ college now face uncertain future. The on-going clash between the government and the students of teachers’ college involves various factors that worked in dissonance. To closely look at how this event advanced this far, The Argus investigated the intertwined components and looked for necessary solutions.
On August 3, Korean government proclaimed a bold and unprecedented policy demanding elementary teacher personnel be reduced by 40 percent. The adjustment was an inevitable compromise to fix the ongoing imbalance between greater supply of elementary teachers and its diminishing demand. As a consequence, the graduates from teachers’ college are now promised to face the employment instability. With the teacher certification exam upcoming in November, this news cannot be more concerning for the examinees. Unfortunate as it is, this chaos in elementary teacher employment involves various relations. To examine closely at who was involved in which way, The Argus looked into the current disproportion in elementary teacher employment.
According to the Ministry of Education, only graduates from teachers’ college can gain the right to take the elementary teacher exam. There are currently 10 national teachers’ colleges, and three private colleges that provide the required qualification. The elementary teacher exam is conducted in two stages, and once the examinees pass the exam, they are placed on a waiting list until their appointments to given district are announced. Right now there are many who have passed the exam but significantly few who are appointed. It is from this asymmetry that the greater number of applicants who have passed the exam are on the verge of losing their chances to become elementary teachers.
From the ministry’s standpoint, lowering down the number of elementary teachers would have meant the most effective measure to stop the elementary teacher catastrophe. From the graduates’ perspective, not so much.
The elementary teacher selection cutback was foreseeable with low birth rate persisting for years. The question was when and by how much. For a long time, the past two administrations were not concerned with lowering the number of elementary teacher selection but increasing it. Now that the new administration has come into power, it seems that ‘when’ is justifiable. As for the ‘how much,’ on the other hand, the administration seems to have taken some harsh steps.
Based on what the Ministry of Education has announced, the number of elementary teacher selection, which has previously been at 6,022 people was downsized to just 3,432. This downsizing was most severely shown in Seoul.
In Seoul, there was 80 percent drop in appointment, making 846 to just 105. Another popular area, Gyeonggi Province also showed a steep drop, lowering the number of candidates to 868 from 1,712.
Considering that Seoul and Gyeonggi Province are the two most popular districts among the examinees, fierce competition along with the long wait until the actual appointment are likely. It is this situation that the graduates are showing their discontent over the policy.
“The elementary teacher selection problem has come to a current state due to the ministry’s ignorance over teaching staffs’ supply and demand policies. The ministry has failed to view this problem from a long-term perspective not to mention, their failure to listen to students’ voices,” asserted Park Jeong-eun, the president of National Teachers’ College Union, on the behalf of the students.
On the whole, this policy is inconsiderate of graduates’ circumstances. First, the announcement was made in August when the graduates are taking the exam in November. Second, the reduction was immoderate especially when the graduates have to bear the repercussions. The fact that the policy was carried out without any consensus from the people who were directly related proves that the reduction was done in haste.
Along with the harshly reduced elementary teacher personnel, the teachers’ colleges that have kept their enrollment unchanged are also partially responsible for the current situation as well.
The number of enrollment has direct correlations with the future number of elementary teachers in Korea. The more undergraduates there are, the more elementary teachers there will be. Because of this, teachers’ colleges have to be warier of their undergraduates counts than any other universities. However, any form of active response to the lowering birth rate was not shown.
Decreasing birth rate in Korea is nothing new. The rate has been decreasing since 2001. Right now, the rate is at 1.24 babies per woman, a figure far below its replacement level fertility of 2.1. According to the demographic trends data announced in May by the National Statistical Office, there are currently 267,000 elementary students. Considering that there were 329,000 students in 2010, the drop is significant.
What is more concerning is teachers’ colleges’ timid response to such an alarming trend. According to the Korea High Education Research Institute, since 2012, the number of students at teachers’ college was kept constant at 3,583. In 2015, the ministry even assured that they will not lower the number of teachers’ college students given there are insufficient number of elementary school teachers.
Staffs at the schools of education would have been well aware of the necessity to cut the number of their undergraduates. Nonetheless, the number of students were unchanged.
For the students of teachers’ college, they not only have to face the more challenging employment situation but also endure public’s unfavorable view towards them.
For a long time, with the help of government, enrollment meant an assured employment for the education college students. Now that getting employed in general became more challenging, the public thought unfair of this special treatment teachers’ college students received. In their standpoint, the competition rate for elementary education exam was too low compared to that of secondary education exam. Ever since its commencement, competition rate for secondary education teacher exam was over 10 to 1 while elementary education teacher exam was kept at 2 or lower to 1. Thus, it is understandable that the public is less sympathetic about this issue.
Even more, Gangwon Province’s three consecutive years of insufficient elementary school teachers fueled the public’s anger. Regardless of students’ intentions, in the eyes of public, the students appeared too full of themselves, only wanting the best from their already privileged state.
“We need 68 elementary teachers in Gangwon Province. However, there are only 26 who are appointed. Because of this, we have to hire temporary teachers for our district,” said Ju Kyung-ja, principal of Heung-yang Elementary School, explaining dire teacher shortage Gangwon province is facing.
Furthermore, the schools of education students’ radical claims during their protest became the target for public’s denunciation as well. Kim Su-jin, a senior from Ewha Women’s University Elementary Teaching Department said, “We do not want to be the victims of your [government’s] failed policies.” Lots of other students demanded their assured employment as well chanting “Policy fail, and shifting responsibility kills us! Kills us! Kills us! Kills us!” in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education office.
During the times when young population suffers from unemployment, their claims were viewed a little self-centered.
The whole elementary teacher crisis was already anticipated from previous administrations’ failed job creation policy. They were pumping out jobs when at the actual field the rooms for jobs were decreasing. The consequences were clear; the agenda was carried out deliberately despite the voices of concern. It was this stubbornness that facilitated the issue to advance this far.
In 2016, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education increased the number of elementary school teacher selection to 960 from 600 under the government’s orders. At that time there were already signs of overflow, yet the government insisted on the expansion of elementary teacher personnel.
“Initially we were going to pick 656 people from the elementary teacher exam. The Ministry of Education, however, wanted more. They demanded the number be increased to at least a thousand. After some compromise, the number was ultimately adjusted down to 862. The number was already beyond the set limit and we [the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education] were in some way hesitant in resisting such pressure. Due to this this, I believe we too have some responsibility over current elementary school teacher catastrophe,” said Han Sang-yoon, the section chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.
As shared by the section chief, the government has shown strong urges in raising the number of ‘allowed’ elementary teachers when the system could not actually sustain that many. What is worse, the agenda was pushed ahead without any detailed long-term plans.
Perhaps it was to appeal to the public with its populist ideals, or maybe they were truly unaware. Either ways, the after effect of this policy is certain. A longer waiting list that puts people who passed the exam in worry. This year, 958 examinees are waiting, hoping that they get drafted the next year. What is guaranteed though is that few hundreds of them will have to wait another year as Seoul cannot accommodate all 958 elementary teachers in the upcoming year.
The dogmatic ways the government chose eventually backfired, and this time, the graduates had to take the damage.
Although the teachers’ colleges were blamed for their inability to lower the number of students, in reality it is difficult for them to do so.
Restructuring and cutting back the number of students also mean decreasing the number of professors and other school personnel. No one wants to lose their jobs in the process of restructuring.
Lowering the number of students and inevitably firing professors would lead to another problem. The fired professors would not accept their unemployment and thus request the government to take responsibility for their losses.
This would cause problems for both students and professors. One way or another this problem involves a dilemma. In order to make the situation better, there should be an approach in increasing the school personnel not decreasing it.
The current criticisms the graduates are receiving are to a certain degree understandable. They were at a better position in employment, and their verbally aggressive protest was enough to irritate the mass. However, before heading on to censuring them, their situation should be taken into consideration.
First of all, the system of teachers’ college only allows one possible career, an elementary school teacher. A distinguishing factor that differentiates teachers’ college from other ordinary universities.
In the freshmen and sophomore years, undergraduates are required to take field learning, with little freedom in choices of courses.
Unlike department of education in other universities that have various other majors for their students, teachers’ college lack double major system. Due to this, students from ordinary university can benefit from double major and choose other career paths, while students at college of education are stuck having to become an elementary school teacher.
Even worse, the graduates have no chance in working at corporations as well. According to Jeon So-ra, an elementary school teacher in Daejeon area, in the corporate application section, teachers’ colleges are not registered at all.
It is from this lack of flexibility that the government guaranteed students at teachers’ college employment and took responsibility over their future careers.
Systematically the students at schools of education are in the position where they are constraint to policy changes. Whenever a policy related to elementary education changes, they have to face all the suffering involved.
As stated by Kim Ha-jin, an ordinary university student, the graduates of school of education are victims at a blind spot.
As of now, after receiving many complaints from the students, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education announced to increase the number of elementary teachers in Seoul. The increase will still be feeble and such slight increase is only a stopgap approach to this problem.
Right now, when teachers get hired, they stay for 20 to 30 years until retirement. Because of this, there is little inflow and outflow of teachers not to mention the old-fashioned classes elementary students are tied to.
In order to open more available spots for elementary teacher candidates, and offer better education for the elementary students, a policy that ensures the retraining of elementary school teachers should be enacted.
Professor Cho Yong-tae of the Graduate school of Public Health at Seoul National University said, “If teachers are allowed to leave school for up to two years and have the opportunity to learn the latest knowledge of the new environment, teachers can benefit by learning new teaching skills and the new graduates awaiting to be elementary teacher can fill in the gaps.”
Catching two birds with one stone, by having the graduate school of teachers’ college re-educate the teachers, the teachers’ college will be able to enlarge their sizes and adjust the number of undergraduates without dismissing any professors.
Teachers’ college lack variety in programs. However, this does not mean that the students need more diversity in curriculum.
“For students who enrolled in the teachers’ college to become an elementary teacher, regardless of how many courses there are, they could not care less. Increasing number of majors would simply mean more materials unrelated to becoming a teacher for the students,” said Kim Yong-lyun, professor of Education Department at HUFS.
As professor Kim said, the key approach is to provide students with better environment to become a teacher not something else. In order to do so, though difficult, unification of teachers’ college and other universities’ department of education is necessary.
First of all, the difference in competition rate between secondary teacher exam and elementary teacher exam is at large. In order to make things fair and square, the two exams should be merged so that all the students aiming to become a teacher are provided with a similar ground.
Right now, the location itself makes specific areas highly preferred for the teachers’ college graduates. The problem is, such polarity is the leading cause for the gap in quality of education. This only makes the unification of the exams all the more necessary. In the long run, evenly distributed competition rate achieved by melding two exams would increase the quality of teachers assigned in each location and fix unusually high competition rate in certain areas.
“It would be harder for teachers’ college to maintain their special position. They can no longer be guaranteed the privilege of having small competition among themselves,” asserted professor Kim.
Korea does not need separation in selecting educators. For the betterment of Korean education system, the unification is necessary.
One fundamental approach to increasing the educators in elementary field is by lowering teacher to student ratio. As of now Korea’s teacher per student ratio is higher than it should be.
According to the OECD statistics in 2014, Korea’s students per teacher ratio was at 16.9, little over the OECD average of 15.1.
The process of increasing the elementary teachers would not be simple as it would mean hiring more teachers and dividing up more classes. However, the change is imperative to increase quality of education and guarantee more workplaces for the elementary teachers.
The elementary school teacher issue is like that of an elephant in a room. There is an obvious problem present, yet people avoid directly facing it. Perhaps this proves that the ongoing elementary personnel problem is not a simple one. Still, education is an expression of the nation’s future. It is not meant to be easy, and no matter how difficult it could be, it is crucial that we thoroughly check the problems and polish our way through. After all, we are the ones responsible for our kids, and our nation.
Staff Reporters of National Section