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Kindergarten teachers feel overwhelmed

July 13,2018
In a kindergarten in Eunpyeong District, northern Seoul, last Thursday, Ms. Choi was busy juggling 26 rowdy children.

A 5-year-old boy had just spilled milk on himself, and she was trying to put a fresh set of clothes on him, but another student was harrying her to look at a drawing in a sketchbook. Meanwhile, in the bathroom, a girl was crying for help, and in the corner of the classroom, a boy was shouting, “Ms. Choi, he just said a bad word!”

It was a typical morning for the weary teacher. From 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Ms. Choi, 35, manages the classroom by herself. “I barely have time to go to the bathroom,” she said.

Ms. Choi is not alone. In a 2016 survey by the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education, 15.6 percent of kindergarten teachers said workload was an issue, and 13.5 percent said each teacher needed to be responsible for fewer children. According to the Ministry of Education, the average kindergarten teacher in Korea is responsible for 26 children, compared to the OECD average of 12.05.

Still, the ministry has decided to hire fewer people next year, 499 new kindergarten teachers, about a third of this year’s pool. “Our 2018 recruitment was out of the ordinary in terms of numbers,” a ministry official said. There were 597 new hires in 2017. “We’re returning to the usual number of recruits for 2019.”

An employee in the Seoul Education Office said the spike in recruitment this year was to make up for a lack of hands in kindergartens. “The number of recruits for next year is simply in line with the normal number of new recruits,” the employee said.

Kim Min-jin, a professor of childhood education at Chung-Ang University, argues that the 2018 recruitment should be the norm. “Public kindergartens make up only 20 percent of all kindergartens in the country, and the proportion of part-time teachers is too high,” she said. “The government has promised to expand the number of public kindergartens in the country to about 40 percent of all kindergartens and to hire more full-time teachers. In that case, it should be hiring at the level it hired in 2018.”

There is an argument to be had that Korea’s falling birthrate means less demand for kindergartens. The number of newborns dropped from 470,171 in 2010 to 357,700 in 2017. It was the first time that the figure fell below 400,000 since the government began compiling the data in 1970. The Presidential Commission on Ageing Society and Population Policy predicts that the figure this year could be even lower, at 320,000, and if the current trend persists, the number of annual newborns could fall below 200,000 before 2022.

Nonetheless, proponents of educators argue that the demands of students who are already in school warrant more teachers in the classroom. “We’re talking about today, and even with the expected drop in newborns, education for young children has transformed to meet the changing needs of children,” said Eom Mi-seon, president of the Korean Association of Public Kindergarten Teachers. “Teaching styles have changed to focus on each child in a classroom, and the number of children requiring more attention from teachers is growing because more moms and dads are working.”

BY PARK HYOUNG-SOO, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]