Another rocky year for education field
Schools divided over ban on physical discipline, free meal program
By Han Sang-hee
When Ahn Bo-Jun, 56, was a schoolboy, getting in trouble was a big deal. It was not just because of the low grades his teachers gave him on his report card, but also for the fear of getting hit on the hands with a thin stick.
“In the past, teachers, students and parents all thought physical discipline was a method of teaching. But now it’s different. People are more aware now of the old method and its influence on both students and teachers,” he said. “I think it’s an outdated method and corporal discipline should be phased out.”
However, many school principals and teachers still think that it’s too early to introduce a complete ban on physical punishment as there is no alternativeway to control unruly students.
Physical punishment is one of the many issues that triggered disputes last year among educators and education offices, and the education field is expected to be strewn with a number of conflicts between liberal and conservative forces.
The conflict between Lee Ju-ho, minister of education, science and technology, and superintendents from regional areas including Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, has never been more heated, and numerous layers need to be unraveled for the sake of both students and teachers.
Conflicts still in the open
According to education experts, the two main issues that will probably continue to cause strife are regarding physical punishment and free lunches.
“In the case of physical punishment, it was considered as a necessary evil, but fundamentally, it is wrong. The catch is that it is hard to find respect and democracy within classrooms,” said professor Lee Dong-ju from the department of education at the Korea National Open University.
The Seoul education authorities, led by liberal superintendent of Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Kwak No-hyun, launched a plan to ban corporal punishment altogether at elementary and secondary schools in November last year.
This was the first time for the city education office to prevent physical punishment. Meanwhile, the education ministry said it supported “indirect” corporal punishment and was working on measures that will allow schools to decide on their own system such as allowing track running and pushups as detention.
“We need to come up with a long term and systemized strategy to bring back respect and trust between student and teachers,” Lee said.
The free lunch battle has also been a prickly problem.
The Seoul Metropolitan Council pushed a budget bill for additional funding to support free school meals, but Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon strongly opposed the bill, backed up by the Grand National Party calling the bill “leftist populism.”
After school programs is also cause for heated debate, with Minister Lee being a big fan, but Kwak believes that restricting them will grant students more freedom and also help them develop their individual learning abilities.
Lee has said that in order to lessen money and effort put into private institutions, expanding and developing after school programs can be an easy and effective way.
Kwak, on the other hand, thinks otherwise.
“We cannot force our children to study. We will get rid of the old method in forcing students to sit and study and enforce programs that will help them regain confidence and feel motivated,” Kwak said in his New Year’s address.
Feasibility is the key
At Chungshin Girls’ Middle School, there is a small empty classroom called the “Self Reflection” room.
“It was designated the place to send students if they cause trouble in class after we were told not to use corporal punishment,” a teacher at the school explained.
As much as she agrees that physical punishment is not always the answer, she said the school staff was skeptical on how consistent and effective such plans will be.
“To be honest, it’s hard to operate such rooms and plans because we don’t have additional staff to look after these students. It’s a good idea, but it’s questionable if all the schools will be able to catch up,” she said.
The same goes for the free lunches.
“Free lunches seem like a good idea, but we cannot be sure this will actually come about. There are a lot of pros and cons and parents like us would like to see consistency once and for all,” Yun Myung-suk, a mother of two middle schoolers said.
Along with creating a respectful environment for both students and teachers, schools in Seoul will also welcome new programs, including those related with discussions, debates and research.
But most important, experts point out, is to stay on track and work for a better environment as soon as possible.
“They should stop fighting over ideologies and prepare feasible and realistic measures. If we are going to scrap an old method, we need to come up with a better alternative,” said Kim Dong-seok, spokesperson for the Korean Federation of Teachers Association.