Editor's Picks Education

English teacher fired for making students taste detergent

Onix and Charm Green
Lee Tae-hoon
Written by Lee Tae-hoon
How long would it take for a native English teacher in South Korea to be fired for inappropriate teaching practices?

According to a senior official at Hanyang Elementary School, native teachers can be fired immediately and anytime if parents and the private school’s administration decide to do so, especially when they make a blunder such as forcing students to taste detergent.

Lee Byung-in, vice principal at Hanyang Elementary School, says Claire, an English teacher from South Africa, was fired on March 13, a day after she let her students taste detergent as punishment for speaking Korean during her after school class.

“Unlike regular workers, we can immediately dismiss native teachers as they are contract workers,” he said, noting that the native teacher taught English in both regular and after school classes in the private school.

Lee mentioned the school received complaints that Claire administered the unusual punishment of tasting either Onix, an organic nail bite deterrent, or Charm Green, an organic dishwashing liquid, during an after school class for sixth graders on March 12.

He stressed that it only happened once and it would not happen again.

The 32-year-old teacher offered an apology the next day in a meeting of parents and senior teaching staff. The school informed her of their decision to dismiss her during the same meeting.

Some Korean media outlets claim that she forced students to drink detergent, but an investigation by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education reveals that it was unlikely that there was any coercion.


“The teacher explained her own rule that students are not allowed to speak Korean and explained to students that those who speak Korean will be subject to tasting Onix, an organic medicine that helps you stop biting your nails, or Charm Green,” Lee Byung-jae, a spokesman of the education office, said.

“However, mischievous children kept using Korean, saying they want to taste them.”

The spokesman said two of the “playful” children chose to taste Onix and three others opted for Charm Green.

Claire left Korea after being dismissed. Lee said she is believed to be staying in Hong Kong.

The following is what Claire wrote in an apology for her inappropriate behavior.


Photo credit: KBS

The following is the product description of Onix.


RECOMMENDED FOR:dual-purpose action, provided through the bitter and spicy tasting plant extracts included, it reduces the temptation to bite nails and cuticles.

FEATURES:dual-purpose action, provided through the bitter and spicy tasting plant extracts included, it reduces the temptation to bite nails and cuticles.

MAIN INGREDIENT:Quassia Amara extract: a very bitter extract from the wood of the Quassia Amara tropical tree. Capsicum extract: an extract from the capsicum (chili pepper) fruit that is rich in capsaicin, an extremely piquant (spicy) substance. Denatonium benzoate: the most bitter substance known. Broadly used as a denaturating substance to improve the safety of products that are not to be ingested.

HOW TO USE:Spread plenty of the product on the nails and the surrounding area, and allow to dry. Repeat application several times a day, especially after washing hands. Harmless even if swallowed in small amounts through contact with oral mucosa. Rub the bristles of the brush between the fingers, to prepare them for first use.

About the author

Lee Tae-hoon

Lee Tae-hoon

Lee Tae-hoon is publisher at The Korea Observer. He previously worked for the Korea Times and Arirang TV. You can reach him at lee@koreaobserver.com.

  • Sarah

    Please, please, PLEASE get someone to proofread articles before publishing them online. There are so many basic language errors in most of the articles on this site, which, combined with the obvious questions that never seem to be asked in investigating stories, makes it impossible to take these articles seriously.

    Why did the writer of this article not think to ask where the Korean co-teacher was during the lesson when this happened? I find it difficult to believe that her co-teachers were not aware that this teacher had told the kids what would happen if they spoke Korean during the lesson. The apology that was supposedly written by Claire is poorly referenced, too. Was this an apology that she gave to the parents of the kids? How was the letter verified? There are several linguistic errors in this letter that are common among Korean speakers. As a South African, I have not seen university educated people make these errors, which makes me doubt the authenticity of parts of the letter where the style is inconsistent. For example: “…was not the quantity enough to swallow but just to taste a little bit” is not how an English speaker would phrase this. This reads as a Korean translation.

    I certainly don’t condone what this teacher allegedly did, but I do find some of the details very hard to believe. Moreover, for a supposedly investigative article, there was no question made of what, if any, repercussions this might have on hiring future foreign teachers – or even SA teachers – particularly when there is such a controversy about whether or not foreign teachers should be in Korean schools. Similarly, there are new requirements for SA teachers in public schools who have to prove their English competency – this would link to the afore-mentioned point.

    As I said, with so many basic errors and omissions in almost every article on this site, it’s hard to take “The Korea Observer” seriously and not consider it to be little more than a blog wanting desperately (and failing) to be an online newspaper.

    • Tae-hoon Lee

      Thanks Sarah for your great comments. I have changed the translated version of what she said with a screenshot provided by KBS. I wasn’t aware that the transcript/translated version had such errors. It was my bad. The co-teacher was not there because it happened during the after school class. Claire taught with her co-Korean teacher for regular classes, but taught alone when the unfortunate incident happened because it was a part of an after school program.

      • Sarah

        Thanks for your prompt response, Tae-hoon. It’s encouraging.

        I’d like to point out that although it’s legally allowed for foreign teachers to teach after school programs without a co-teacher, the Korean teacher is still technically responsible for what happens in those lessons. This is why I mentioned that I find it hard to believe that her co-teacher (or at least her supervisory teacher) was not aware of the punishment that she had decided on. Was this form of punishment only explained to the students in that specific class or was it something the teacher had previously warned the students that she would do? This is a question that should be asked. Similarly, was she a qualified teacher? This is one of the biggest arguments against foreign teachers! Investigative journalism is not about neutrality of avoiding upsetting people. One look at social forums like Facebook show that your article about how foreign teachers are often duped by Korean employers seems to have received far more attention from the foreign community than this particular incident.

        Furthermore, as a true investigative piece, the article would have at least referenced that many foreign teachers teach after school programs – and even regular classes – alone, which is one of the biggest concerns about the NSET program. Many parents and Korean teachers (even Korean English teachers) feel that the foreign teachers do not offer the sincerity that Korean teachers offer – this incident is a prime example that supports this argument. The article should also have referenced the position of the education department in regard to what is considered to be appropriate punishment for students. This article had so much potential for a quality piece of investigative journalism and yet it lacks so many of the fundamentals of what such a piece should be.

        The second paragraph is also quite misleading: native teachers can’t be fired at the whim of parents and the school administration simply because they’re contract workers. Foreign teachers at public schools have a standard contract (available online) with clear clauses regarding misconduct and termination. Again, this is the bare minimum of the content that should have been mentioned in the article in order for it to be investigative journalism. These are also basic errors that any decent copy editor should be highlighting in the editing process.

        Finally, it would be great if Korean references to foreign teachers recognised that we also have family names. A Korean person or a foreign diplomat would never be referred to by first name only yet this seems to be acceptable when referring to foreign English teachers. It also creates a sense of inconsistency in the overall style of the article.

        • Tae-hoon Lee

          Thank you once again for your insightful feedback, Sarah. The conclusion of the investigation was that it only happened once on March 12. Given that ger E-2 visa was sponsored by the school, we can at least assume that she was legally qualified to teach in Korea as a native English teacher. “Foreign teachers are often duped by Korean employers” is not my article, but I was the one contacting the immigration officer and global center employer to confirm details. Nevertheless, I read and edited the article before publishing it as publisher. Also I am the one to be blamed for any click-bait or trash articles you can find on the Korea Observer. It really breaks my heart everyday as I am acutely aware that the Korea Observer is incapable of addressing issues that matter and I end up publishing incomplete pieces, which as you pointed out, need to be better written. And once again you are right that she wouldn’t have been fired overnight if she worked for a public school. Hangyang Elementary Shoool, however, is a private school. Lastly, I didn’t mention the teacher’s full name in the article as it can ruin her life. I think she learned a lesson and damages have been done.

          • Jenny Jackson-Smith

            I would say there was more investigation done on this site than on any other site that has reported on this incident… They keep using the sensational headlines — ‘foreigner forced kids to eat detergent’… and then have a 2 paragraph story… this is the most detailed account of the incident i’ve seen.

          • Tapp

            Just to clarify, private schools do not have any more power to fire than a public school. She was fired and she left the country because she didn’t attempt to challenge their decision. Considering the way this story was skewed in the press, she most likely would have lost any appeal, but she did have recourse. She just chose not to pursue it.

            Foreign-born workers do have rights in Korea and Korea has steadily improved their track record on protecting those rights. If you accept a punishment and do not speak to anyone about it, you essentially waive those rights.

      • smithington

        Wanna know how I know you’re lying.. how long have you been saying that? months now? and you still let that idiot write for you.. until he’s gone from the site I can’t believe a single claim that you make that you want to improve the quality of the site or its content.

    • smithington

      Because the article writer likely did no real research. They just took a couple of other sources who already covered this and “rewrote it in their own words”.

  • Jenny Jackson-Smith

    It’s not like I agree with what this teacher did…but I feel so bad for her! On the list of horrible things a teacher can do to their students, this is extremely low…

    I know that I had to learn early on in my teaching career to never threaten something I couldn’t follow through on, and she probably felt the same way… she had said she would do it, she felt like she had to… and I totally get the kids wanting to taste it too…egging the whole situation on. I honestly don’t know if I think it was a fireable offense… it’s hard to say. On the face of it, it can seem bad. But to be perfectly honest… I’d much rather this sort of thing happen than have a teacher who screams at the kids non-stop (something I’ve seen on occasion) or even a teacher who doesn’t care at all and just sleepwalks through their job…

  • Abdiel Lawrence

    I’m sorry but that teacher was a fool. I taught here for 3 years and it never even crossed my mind to come up with some foolishness like this. Why in the hell would you even think of using soap when it comes to kids if it doesn’t involve them washing their hands?

  • Neil Frazer

    I disagree with the academies standings on firing “contract workers”. Holding an E-2 visa means that you are an employee. You are not a contract worker. They are not allowed to fire you unless they give you a 30 day notice, and have a good reason for firing you.

    In the case of this situation, I firmly believe that situationally it really wasn’t that terrible. Was it a good choice for the teacher? Absolutely not. There are so many better options for restricting behavior than this, but perhaps her academy did not instruct her on how to do so.

Click here not to show this pop-up box again.