Why do South Korean teachers get the rock star treatment?

Education
by Laura Edghill
Posted 10/12/15, 02:15 pm

A recent documentary shares a rare view inside the grueling, hyper-competitive world of the South Korean educational system, where the most successful teachers command packed stadium attendance and are treated like rock stars. 

The directors of Reach for the SKY, neither of whom is Korean, described watching a renowned English teacher arrive at an Olympic-sized stadium, emerge from his BMW, and stride into the spotlight to the roar of tens of thousands of cheering students. The scene is impossible to image in the West.

“But none of it is ridiculous, if you understand the context,” said co-director Steven Dhoedt.

In South Korea, entrance to the nation’s top three universities, or “SKY” schools, is so competitive that a mere 1 percent of students who take the entrance exams gain admission each year. The remaining 99 percent face the tough decision to re-enroll in a private test-prep academy, attend another South Korean college, or leave the country for university. For many families, generations of hopes and dreams rest on the prospect of a child making it to that 1 percent group to claim a coveted university spot and secure a brighter future for the entire family.

South Korean teachers whose students excel on the college entrance exams achieve guru-like status and frequently lead luxurious lifestyles built on the private fees families pay for test-prep guidance.

The system is in stark contrast to the United States, where teachers are frequently seen as the rejects of more competitive careers and the root cause of numerous modern educational failings.

The teaching profession in the United States has become so denigrated that the Department of Education in 2012 launched “The RESPECT Project,” with the goal of engaging a national conversation about the value of highly effective teachers and elevating the teaching profession in general.

“We need to radically change society’s views of teaching from the factory model of yesterday to the professional model of tomorrow, where teachers are revered as the thinkers, leaders, and nation-builders they truly are,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

South Korea isn’t the only country to honor its teachers, although it may be the only place where they’re treated like rock stars.

In Finland, teachers enjoy widespread respect and nations around the world scrutinize what is commonly revered as a model educational system. But instead of being idolized as pop-culture icons, Finnish teachers command respect commensurate with professionals in other highly regarded careers, like finance and law. In order to become a teacher, hopeful university students compete for a limited number of seats in graduate-level teaching certification programs (only 1 in 10 gets in) and ultimately enjoy salaries competitive with other respected professions in Finland. 

Reach for the SKY likely will provoke a discussion about South Korean education and its notoriety for producing academically smart but creatively stifled students. But it also could encourage Western countries to rethink their attitudes toward the people charged with educating future generations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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