Raising the Bar

February 27, 2013 — Leave a comment

After going crazy trying to figure out why Mtuseni “refuses” to complete all the allowance tasks I assign — or does them halfway and complains when I ask him to finish a task as directed — I finally realized that it’s not him. It’s the culture he lives in. In many of my dealings with South Africans, I’m lucky to receive a semi-correct answer to two e-mail questions when I ask five. Sometimes e-mail exchanges just stop with no explanation. Americans who complain about service and communication in the US don’t realize how good we have it compared to South Africa. It’s amazing anything gets accomplished there.

So when I ask Mtuseni to do five tasks for his allowance by a specific date — and he does three at the last minute, with inconsistent quality and effort — by his cultural experience he’s hit a home run. Even his school promotes this philosophy.

2012 mtu grades-j

His grade report for last year is a point of pride for him — simply because he passed every subject. From an American academic perspective, these numbers look terrible. However, like the UK system, a passing grade in SA is 50, not 65. But what bothers me is that the school offers no additional ranking of the grade scale. Every mark above 50 is coded as “Pass/Continue.” A pass is a pass, whether the mark is a 52 or an 88.

This offers students no incentive to work harder and get better marks. There is no report comment that says “55, Barely passing” or “63, Pass with warning” or “82, Pass with distinction.” To me, this partly explains the “halfway” culture I continually chafe against in South Africa. If a mark of 50 out of 100 is as good as a mark of 90, then why not just shoot for 50?

Now, finally, I understand that Mtuseni is not playing power games with me. He’s doing what is common and familiar — he’s a product of his culture. We talked last week about him needing to shift his attitude from “I don’t wanna fail” at school to “I want to aim for really high marks.” At first, he truly couldn’t fathom what I was saying. Because getting to 50 is enough.

But it’s not enough. Not for me, and not for a kid who needs to compete with a lot of young wolves all hungry for jobs after college. He needs some type of competitive advantage, and given his economic background and substandard education, being a South African who strives to give 110 percent will be his best hope.

Changing such a core cultural philosophy in Mtuseni is not going to be easy; it’s going to take time and be achieved in small steps. We’ve already been working on it, and it’s incredible how slow he is to grasp even the smallest aspects of this concept… because he’s not a dumb kid.  And he’s desperate to succeed.

And that’s why we’ve agreed that the goal for this year is for all his grades to be 75 or higher. I’d like them much higher — he’s had a few grades in the high 80s — but I want to raise the bar just enough so he can fly far above it. And see 50 fading away in the rear view mirror, with “halfway” never to be an option for him again.


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