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At the Cross Section of East and West

In Conversation With: George Tsementzis
Consultant at North Jakarta International School

George Tsementzis is consistently at the crossroads of the East and West. He was born in the UK to a family of Greek immigrants and eventually studied finance in the United States. After a successful career in banking and SME consulting, Tsementzis realized he was no longer happy in a numbers game and needed a change. So he traveled the world from India to Ethiopia to Myanmar and many places in between. He made an unlikely career change during this time and started teaching. Now, he is bringing his teaching and business/finance expertise together as a consultant at a private international school in Indonesia.

Having worked and lived around the world, Tsementzis has been able to understand how Eastern and Western cultures and points of view intersect and intermix. This seems to have helped him become a successful consultant at North Jakarta International School (NJIS). He calls himself a “translator” between the Western and Eastern mind. In reality, what he does is work with the Indonesian corporation that owns NJIS and the school itself to strategize how both parties can find common goals to make the school a success. This is a challenging task to say the least, considering business goals and educational goals are almost always at odds with one another.

Tsementzis sees the privatization of education around the world as an inevitable development. He believes this process is often done in a way that damages education by creating an educational environment that is completely profit driven. To avoid this, Tsementzis and his colleagues are using a different model at NJIS. They are turning the process of privatization on its head by aligning the strategies and goals of the corporation to the values of the school—as opposed to aligning the school’s values and goals with the corporation’s ROI.

How have they done this? They have adopted the Harvard Business School’s Balanced Scorecard method. Tsementzis and his colleagues are focusing on four areas at NJIS: teaching, engineering, commanding and socializing. These four factors, which are closely tied to culture, are helping Tsementzis and his colleagues align the business side with the education side so they can come to a common strategy. Tsementzis is co-writing a book on this process with his colleagues, which should be released in the next year.

Tsementzis is among the most interesting and worldly people I have spoken with. Read on to learn his thoughts on living in Asia, the privatization of education and his favorite philosophers.

What do you like about living in Asia?

“I like the work ethic. It’s [also] more human. The economy is good so people are happier. In [places like] Greece and Detroit, people are depressed. [It’s important to recognize] that money is not what makes people happy…it helps. But appreciation, accomplishment and purpose…those three things are why I am in Indonesia. I could make more money elsewhere…but I am actually making a change here. You also get automatic respect here (and in Burma and Ethiopia) for working in the education sector.”

What is NJIS’s educational philosophy?

“NJIS focuses on: family, providing a well-rounded education, and community service—community service is part of the curriculum. We also want our students to have a broad world-view and be creative, engaged learners.

Complaining about the [traditional] Asian curriculum happens a lot [here in Indonesia]. At NJIS, we focus on creativity and innovation. Project-based learning [is huge]. We also make our students do problem solving over and over again. For example, our students are building an urban garden and they have had to research it and grow it themselves. The students will then give the produce [they have grown] to those in need in the community.

We are also building a recycling station where all plastic, glass and paper products will be given to the pemulung (those that make a living gathering recycled trash). The pemulung spend most of their time across the street, working long hard hours pushing a cart around whilst their children follow them at work.”

Challenges with the privatization of education?

“My challenge now is to move away from financial management and quantitative [measures] to [educational] value and values. I found that although numbers do not lie, the key is always in the qualitative perspective. The variables in my formulae are values and goals which are then translated into numbers.

There are also two levels of challenges in terms of communication. Working between the education sector and private sector [which are often at odds] and working with the Asian mindset [which is that of the Indonesian company that owns NJIS] and the Western mindset [which is what NJIS has].”

Do you see the privatization of education spreading in other parts of Asia/around the world?

“It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen because private schools are great moneymakers. They are gold mines. That’s something that we cannot stop. Health and education are huge costs for governments that businessmen are willing to take off their hands. There is going to be a big need to figure out how to properly align the goals between the schools and the private companies because they cannot communicate successfully.

You need to make it so that when people are in the market for schools [your school] has equal or better value. [This means the private companies] can’t make all these cuts to the education system [just for the sake of cutting costs].”

How do you deal with the culture of pressure and perfection in Asia?

“The parents pressure the kids a lot here. We believe that pressure works against you. You shouldn’t be motivated out of fear…You will make bad decisions.

The physical evidence of happiness and intrinsic motivation can be found in research and we have living examples of such. So we can use it to convince the parents because we tell them, ‘The kids were happy doing so that’s how they ended up in the best universities in America and elsewhere.’

The most important thing is being happy. Our slogan is ‘Happy children learn more, faster.””

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On cross-cultural education:

“Ancient Greek philosophers—they traveled! They connected the Eastern and Western philosophies. That’s what made them so great! It gave them so much insight—that global human perspective. The exchange of ideas and methods between peoples advances us as a whole.

That is where we are going now through the Internet and globalization. We are trying to find common ground so we can grow together. Of course it has it pitfalls when values clash. But if we all cherish family, good deeds and progress we can start from there.

Maybe we should bring the best from the East to the U.S. [and vice versa]. There should be teaching exchange programs. It’s the best kind of exchange you can get…its good for the students and the teachers. And it’s cost-effective, too! More mixing of East and West is better for the world!”

Advice for teachers?

“Never forget how it was when you were a child.”

Favorite philosophers?

  • Dr. Martin Luther King
  • Herodotus
  • Socrates
  • Bob Marley
  • Swami Vivekananda
  • J. Krishnamurti


Nisha Choksi is the Managing Editor of Universal Mirror. She is working on completing her Master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) from Northwestern University, focusing on issues related to education and economic development.  Nisha is an active dancer who enjoys traveling and is obsessed with all things beauty.  


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