Vietnamese teacher’s suicide sheds light on pressures facing educators

Case raises questions about whether union could have provided support
By RFA Vietnamese
2022.10.07
A view of the main entrance of Hai Cong Seconday School in Quy Nhon, southeastern Vietnam's Binh Dinh province, in an undated photo.
RFA

The suicide of a secondary school teacher in southeastern Vietnam last month who described her profession as “horrible” has stirred debate over the pressures facing educators. 

The 33-year-old woman, identified in Vietnamese media only by the initials “VTHP,” left her classroom at the Hai Cang Secondary School after the first morning session on Sept. 20 and went missing for four days. Residents of Quy Nhon city in Binh Dinh province, where the school is located, found her body next to a motorbike and a backpack containing teaching materials and what appeared to be a suicide note.

“If I have any next lives, I would never want this noble profession,” it read. “It is horrible.”

The teacher, originally from the province’s Phu Cat district, went on to write about the stress educators face in Vietnam. "Apart from a lot of teaching pressure in class, teachers still have to worry about whether their names are on the list of people making mistakes or not,” she wrote. “Time is too limited while the workload is too heavy. Teachers have to bear so many things.”

The note also cryptically referred to “an unacceptable incident which made me decide to leave this life today,” suggesting there was a specific event that pushed the woman over the edge. “I wish after I pass away, no teachers would be allowed to attend my funeral,” she wrote.

Other teachers said the pressures they face have been unbearable at times. “I completely understand why the teacher came up with the idea of killing herself,” said an educator from Hanoi with more than 20 years of experience who asked not to be identified.

“In addition to teaching, they are also responsible for many things for their students, families and school, including students’ grades and performance, students’ behavior and ethics, and class achievements,” she said, adding that the suicide has prompted her to consider creating a support group for teachers.

Recent data suggests that teachers are unhappy in their jobs. Since January 2020, more than 5,500 government officers have resigned, 44% of them from the education sector, according to Vietnamese state media.

In southeastern Vietnam, more than 1,200 teachers in Dong Nai province quit their jobs between early 2021 to mid-2022, while 527 educators in Binh Duong province resigned during the same period. The education department in the capital of Hanoi also has reported many cases of resignations.

Bottle of poison

On Thursday, Col. Phan Sau, chief of police in Quy Nhon, told local media that investigators had not yet completed a report on the cause of the woman’s death and were waiting for autopsy results from the forensics agency.

An employee of the Binh Dinh Forensic Center told Vietnam's Workers newspaper said the cause would not be determined until after an examination, but that a bottle of poison had been found at the scene.

The teacher’s father told reporters on Thursday that his family had not received any word from authorities about what caused his daughter’s death. 

The mayor of Quy Nhon, capital of Binh Dinh province, told local media that the woman, whom he referred to as “Teacher P,” was a gentle and dedicated person who was devoted to her students, though she had experienced a problem with one of them.

The parents of a sixth-grader at the teacher’s school – secondary school in Vietnam goes from grades 10 to 12 – complained that she had hit their child, he said. School administrators then asked the teacher to write a report explaining the incident. 

In her report, the educator said she lightly struck the student for failing to take notes in class or complete homework assignments. She acknowledged that she made a mistake, and the student’s family said it would withdraw the complaint.

Union support?

The teacher's death also raised questions about whether the school’s trade union could have offered her more support before she took her life. Generally, the teachers’ union doesn’t provide help in managing stress or offer counseling services, the educator from Hanoi said. Instead, the body’s main tasks are to attend the funerals of employees’ deceased family members on behalf of the school and to visit sick colleagues and give them some gifts, the teacher said.

“Individuals who don’t have standing [in an organization] have to find the safest way to protect themselves,” she said. “Therefore, they do not dare to speak up when their colleagues face injustice or oppression. Trade unions are useless, and they cannot protect teachers,” she said.

La Minh Luan, a retired teacher, raised questions on Facebook about the role of school administrators and why they appeared to not have supported the woman.

“Why couldn’t she bear with your way of management and behavior so that she had to take her own life? You guys are not without responsibility,” he wrote in a post. “If the management was prejudiced against her, I would question the responsibilities of the school’s trade union that looks after laborers’ rights and interest.”

A representative at Hai Cang Secondary School said the school had taken a number of measures to take pressure off the teacher.

“Internal issues are settled democratically in accordance with the school stipulations,” said the representative, who did not provide a name. “However, the teacher [who committed suicide] also faced other issues in life that were unclear.”

Do Viet Khoa, a Hanoi-based educator, told RFA that news of the suicide was “very painful” for teachers like him. 

He wondered if sharing her struggles on social media as well as with family and friends might have helped – but he also recognized that doing so publicly could get her in hot water. “If I shared that idea publicly, I immediately would be put in jail within the following week,” the teacher said,

Do said he knew first-hand of the vengeful acts and suppression by superiors at schools. “Unfortunately, in many schools across the country, the principals become thugs, rascals and despicable, petty people who do harm to others, cheat students’ parents and harm teachers,” he said. “This kind of story is not rare and perhaps my case is a typical one.”

After he accused the then-principal of his school of violating regulations and having extramarital affairs, he was isolated, Do said, and threatened for many years. He even took legal action against his adversaries, though his case has not been handled properly, he said.

Vu Minh Duoc, Director General of the Department for Teachers and Education Managers Affairs under the Ministry of Education and Training, said there were many reasons for teacher resignations, including low income and pressure from students’ parents and society, according to an article by the online newspaper VietnamNet.

To avoid stressful situations that could prompt other teachers to take their lives, the female teacher in Hanoi who wished to remain anonymous suggested that those who experience retribution share their stories with teachers’ communities and equip themselves with legal knowledge to fight for their legitimate rights and benefits.

“First, they need to connect with a community or surrounding colleagues to share their stories and get advice,” she said. “Then they need to seek help from lawyers and equip themselves with legal knowledge to take legal proceedings against their bosses,” she said. “Having a good understanding of related laws and their basic rights would enable them to identify whether their schools’ policies and deeds are right or wrong in order to fight back.”

Translated by Anna Vu for RFA Vietnamese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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