Teacher’s Day in South Korea

 Today is Teacher’s Day! Also known as Seu-seungwehnal (스승의 날).

History

Teacher Day has been celebrated on May 15th since 1963. The day began when a group of Red Cross youth members visited their former teachers who were either hospitalized or had retired and since then Teacher’s Day has become a chance for students to once again remember their teachers.

Culture

Under Confucianism there is a saying which goes ‘Do not even step on the shadows of your teachers.’  Whether you are Buddhist or Christian, the Confusiast ideas permeate Korean culture. This saying implies how much respect Koreans showed to their teachers in the past.

Even President Obama praised Korea for the strong respect it has for its teachers. President Obama said in his speech on March 14, 2011 that “We need to help every child get ahead. In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders and I think it’s time we treat our teachers with the same level of respect right here in the United States of America”.  

Just like Parent’s Day, carnations are a traditional gift given to teachers as a sign of appreciation. Students also give them “love cards” as a way to tell teachers about their appreciation. These are usually student-made. Parties are thrown by universities and schools, awarding the best educators for their hard work.

A student giving a teacher a carnation, 1965

Foreign teachers recieving carnations from students in Korea.

Chonji, Then and Now

A 2009 Anti-corruption and Civil Rights Commission survey found that among 1,660 parents surveyed, 39.8 percent said they give chonji to teachers on Teacher’s Day. When asked what kinds of chonji they give to teachers, 63.1 percent of respondents said they choose gifts, 26.4 percent said they give a gift voucher and 7.8 percent said they give cash gifts.

And what is chonji? In Korea, the practice of parents offering under-the-table bonuses is known as chonji (촌지). Chonji means “a token of goodwill” in Korean, and doesn’t connote anything illegal. The practice of giving teachers gifts is thought to date back to the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910) Dynasties. According to a recent article in the Korea Joongang Daily, due to a wave of corruption within teachers in the country, the government officially announced in 2008 that teachers who accept chonji should be fired. Investigators have surprised teachers heading home from school checking their bags or cars for chonji-related gifts. Now that is intense!

My experience

I got the wonderful surprise of walking into my first grade period to my girls screaming and the room filled with balloons. My desk had a piece of cardboard that had mini chocolate cakes (they know me so well!) placed in a circle with a cute heart candle decorating the center piece. AWWW! The school then gave us fruit and rice cakes as a treat.

One class later, the students remind me it’s also Friday the 13th. To which I reply, well since its Teachers Day then the day is nulled to me. Them on the other hand…..

Two classes later, I have them play Rock, Paper, Scissors (Kai-Bai-Bo 가위바위보) to determine who gets to read in class. One of my student gets so flustered she begins to cry after she finishes. Dangit! What a way to end Teachers Day.

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