Teaching is a highly respected profession in South Korea, and among the most popular career choices for young South Koreans. This is largely due to competitive pay, job stability, and good working conditions – for example, there is a high degree of collaboration among teachers. It is, however highly regulated with even part-time lecturers required to hold a teaching certificate, and therefore not an option for a majority of people. However, in recent years there has been an undersupply of elementary school teachers and an oversupply of secondary school teachers. This is because elementary teachers must attend one of 13 institutions to become qualified whereas secondary school teachers have multiple pathways into teaching and often attend comprehensive universities. Teachers are paid well in South Korea. Lower secondary teachers can expect a mid-career salary of $52,699, much higher than the OECD average of $41,701.
Recruitment and Compensation
Teacher education takes place at several types of institutions in South Korea. These include dedicated teachers colleges (there are 11 of these in the country), the departments of education at colleges and universities, and short, non-degree teacher training programs also housed in colleges and universities. Admission to any of these programs is based on a candidate’s graduation from a general, academic high school and his/her score on the College Scholastic Ability Test, the examination that all high school students hoping to continue on to higher education must take. The vast majority of elementary school teachers are educated at the teacher colleges, and therefore the number of candidates and graduates is regulated to more or less meet the schools’ needs, although there has been a shortage of elementary school teachers in recent years after a lowering of the retirement age caused more than 20,000 teachers to retire. Secondary school teaching candidates are not as easily regulated because there are multiple pathways to certification, and because teaching is a high-status, well-paid job in Korea, there are many more qualified teacher candidates produced each year than are needed by the schools. As a result, only 30% of secondary school teaching candidates are able to find jobs – an improvement over a 16.5% employment rate in 2005. Thus for secondary school teachers, the recruitment process is selective, but at the hiring rather than the admissions phase. It has also meant that highly-qualified students who wish to become teachers apply to train as elementary teachers, rather than secondary teachers, resulting in quite a strong elementary teaching force – they are recruited from the top 5% of the high school academic cohort. However, the undersupply of elementary teachers has meant that while the majority of these teaching candidates are placed, they are not always given jobs directly suited to their subject-area training. Teachers are hired centrally at the metropolitan or provincial level based on their scores on a competitive examination.
Lower secondary school teachers with the minimum education requirements in South Korea can expect a starting yearly salary of $30,401, with the potential to make as much as $84,529 by the end of their careers. While the starting salary is slightly below the OECD average of $31,687, the top of the pay scale salary is much higher than the OECD average of $51,317. Teachers’ salaries are competitive with other professional salaries in South Korea, and even starting salaries are higher than the GDP per capita.
Initial Education and Training
Teacher training has gone through three stages in South Korea since 1945. After WWII, there was a critical shortage in the number of elementary school teachers, and in response, the government established a number of teacher-training schools (called “normal schools”) at the secondary level, as well as non-degree granting teacher training centers. Graduates of normal schools were granted teaching certificates upon completion of upper secondary school, as well as graduates of high schools who completed an 18-week course at a training center. In 1961, all normal schools were upgraded to two-year teachers colleges; these were further upgraded to four-year institutions between 1981 and 1984. Today, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology develops South Korea’s teacher education and professional development policies, including developing the basic certification policy and overseeing the creation of additional teacher training institutes at universities.
Despite the fact that teacher training has diversified, and teachers can now be trained in colleges and universities as well as at the teachers colleges, the vast majority of elementary school teachers are still trained at either the 11 teachers colleges, the South Korea National University of Education, or the Ewha Womans University. These programs involve four years of coursework, with a curriculum that is made up of both subject-area content and pedagogical theory. General courses comprise 30% of the curriculum. Of this 30%, 65% are required courses in the areas of the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and physical education. The remaining 35% of general courses are elective, and students can choose from courses in the humanities, language and literature, social sciences, natural sciences and the arts. Major courses (every teacher in Korea is required to have a subject major, which is listed on his or her teaching certificate) make up the other 70% of the curriculum. These comprise general pedagogy (11 subjects including educational psychology, educational sociology, educational philosophy and school and classroom management); subject-specific pedagogy; training courses for the arts and physical education; advanced courses in one of the subject areas (as well as a graduation thesis); and credits in practice teaching. The practice teaching component of the curriculum is nine weeks long and is made up of four courses in observation practice, participation practice, teaching practice and administrative work practice. Once teachers have completed four years of coursework leading to a bachelor’s degree, they are eligible to apply for a teacher certificate. They are issued a grade two certificate, which can be upgraded to grade one after three years of experience and fifteen credit hours of in-service training. There is no probationary period for new teachers, though there is in-school pre-employment training that typically lasts for two weeks and includes case studies, practical tasks and theory study as well as instruction in student guidance and classroom management. Additionally, there are six months of post-employment training, which involves instructional guidance and evaluation, classroom supervision and instruction on clerical work and student guidance.
All secondary school teachers are required to hold a bachelor’s degree, though there are multiple paths to certification. Prospective teachers can be trained in a number of different institutions: colleges of education within universities; departments of education in general colleges; teaching certificate programs in general colleges; and graduate schools of education. There can often be a large degree of difference in the quality of these programs, particularly among the shorter programs (teaching certificate programs and graduate schools of education) that seek to give students with subject-area bachelor’s degrees brief and basic training to allow them to become certified. In recent years, the Korean government has addressed this issue of quality by setting up an accreditation system for teacher preparation programs, revising the curriculum of the programs, and attempting to integrate the teachers colleges and universities. As in elementary teacher education, students training to be secondary teachers who are becoming certified in full-fledged education programs are required to complete 30% of their credits in general subjects and the remaining 70% in a combination of major courses and teacher training courses, and are required to produce a graduation thesis. Students enrolled in general colleges or universities pursuing degrees in subject areas can also become certified as secondary school teachers by completing 20 credits (14% of the credits required for a bachelor’s degree) in teacher training as well as their own major requirements for the subject-area bachelor’s degree. All public school teachers must take and pass an employment test administered by the Metropolitan and Provincial Offices of Education to be hired. Each Office of Education determines how many positions they need to fill, and fills those positions based on test score rankings of applicants. Private school teachers are hired independently by the schools, though many private schools, on government advice, are now beginning to hire their teachers based on test performance.
Ratio of Lower Secondary Teachers’ Salary to GDP per Capita (2014)
Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2016 (Teacher Salaries) and OECD (GDP per capita)
International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. (2009). Do Countries Paying Teachers Higher Relative Salaries Have Higher Student Mathematics Achievement? – This report examines how mathematics teachers are paid in 20 countries, and also provides an overview of how teachers are trained and recruited. South Korea is included; see page 111. (PDF)
Consortium for Policy Research in Education. (2007). A Comparative Study of Teacher Preparation and Qualifications in Six Nations. – An in-depth analysis of teacher training and teacher demographics in six Asian economies, including South Korea (page 55). (PDF)
Teachers have the opportunity to be promoted to vice-principal or principal, though the competition for these positions is very high due to South Korea’s traditional emphasis on status. Principals are responsible for school management, teacher supervision, and maintaining school facilities; the vice principal assists the principal with these duties. Teachers’ promotions are based on years of service, evaluation results, and research achievement. Teachers earn points in each of these areas that can add up to an eventual promotion, and can also earn bonus points for things like teaching in remote areas or in special education schools.
The South Korean government is also in the process of institutionalizing a Master Teacher system, which was piloted in 2008. Under this system, teachers who have particularly strong skills in both teaching and leadership are designated Master Teachers. Master Teachers are expected to remain in a teaching role, but take on new responsibilities in professional development at the school and district levels. They are expected to share their expertise with other, less experienced teachers and help develop curriculum, instructional practices and evaluation systems. In order to become a Master Teacher, teachers must have a grade one certificate and ten to fifteen years of teaching experience. Screening committees in each province evaluate teachers in three steps: document screening; teaching capability observation and peer interviews; and an in-depth interview with the teacher. Master teachers are given small research grants of $150 a month in addition to their normal salaries.
The South Korean government develops and manages professional development programs for teachers. These include training for qualifications, as well as in-service training and special training in areas such as information digitalization or curriculum formation. In-service programs take place over at least 180 hours (30 days); teacher performance is assessed on a 100-point scale and teachers who complete a program earn a certificate, which can enhance their promotion and wage prospects. In order to encourage teachers to take advantage of professional development opportunities, credit hours completed can help enhance a teacher’s promotion prospects. However, teachers are not required to complete the programs, and can still be promoted without having done so. Principals can provide teachers with professional development support by recommending particular programs and using school funding to subsidize a portion of the training expense.