PORTES OUVERTES: THE SURPRISE PARENT TEACHER CONFERENCES

FEBRUARY 2017


When I came to school that morning, I had known that it was Portes Ouvertes (Open Doors), or "Parent Teacher Conferences." I had been under the impression, however, that I was going to serve as more of a greeter than anything else: introduce myself to parents, help them find the right rooms, explain what I'm doing here, etc. Given that I rotate through all 57 English classes, it only seemed fitting that the teachers who are in each class full time would meet with the parents to discuss students' strengths and weaknesses. Surely I wasn't fit to have those conversations. Surely ...

About an hour into the day, Mr. Bolo tells me that he thinks I should observe his conferences because it would be interesting for me. And to be sure, I was eager to understand what the process entailed. After all, there are 4,000+ students at our school. How were teachers conducting so many conferences at once? Did parents have specific time slots with specific teachers? What did conferences look like here?

Turns out, there are classrooms designated for different subject matters (English, French, Science, etc.), and teachers just plop down at desks in those different classrooms and put up small signs with their names. Then parents form a line in front of the desk and wait to speak with their child's teacher. Another intriguing difference between American parent teacher conferences and Ivoirian parent teacher conferences is that the students are present. In fact, most of the time the conferences are actually just an opportunity to applaud a student for good marks or grill a student for poor marks ... in front of their parents ... and a line of other families who are listening.

As I watched Mr. Bolo, I quickly picked up on his rhythm for these conferences. Greet family. Take report card. Look at English grade. Discuss English grade. Make poorly performing kids squirm. Make well performing kids smile. Have the parent sign an attendance sheet. End of conference. Greet next family.

After about 30 minutes of watching him, Mr. Bolo turns to me and casually says:

So I actually have to run to another school to teach some classes. It shouldn’t take long. Probably just an hour. You can do my parent teacher conferences until I get back, right?
— Mr. Bolo

TCHIÉ?!

First of all, nothing in Côte d'Ivoire ever takes "just an hour." Second of all - what?! 

"Umm ... Mr. Bolo, I don't know if that's such a good idea. I don't know how each student performs in your class well enough to conduct a conference! I wouldn't be able to say how they behave, how much they participate. Also - I'm not even supposed to speak French here!" (Yeah, at the request of the headmaster, I've been pretending that I can't speak French. The goal is to have students only speak English with me. The reality is that I just secretly eavesdrop on all of their conversations. Turns out they really like my dresses). From time to time, I slip up and start speaking French, and the students go wild. Needless to say, conducting parent teacher conferences in French all day would be a surefire way to confirm their suspicions - Ms. Cathryn does, in fact, speak French.

Bolo didn't seem fazed. "Ahh, you'll be fine. Just take the report card, comment on the grade, have the parent sign the sheet, and you're onto the next family." He handed me the attendance sheets for his 5 different classes, totaling well over 350 students. I looked at the sheets, then looked at Bolo and the line of families in front of his desk. I decided that if I was going to do this, I was at least going to try to do it right. I asked him to give me 10 minutes to prep. In those 10 minutes, I came up with a framework of questions I could use to best assess a student's weak points and performance. The questions were aimed towards understanding what resources were available to them, how much time they spend on work and studying at home, their engagement in class, etc.

Though a lot of parents were confused when they approached my desk (after all, the sign clearly read Mr. Bolo), the conferences actually went really well! At the end of each meeting, I would make a pact between the parent, student, and myself that we would all be committed to improving or maintaining the student's grade in the following ways:

  • Students committed to participate in class, ask questions when they didn't understand, do their homework, and take at least 20 minutes each night to study their lessons.
  • Parents committed to confirming that their child had done their homework and studied their lessons for at least 20 minutes.
  • I committed to working with students after school, catering the activities in my English club to students' needs in the classroom, and being available via cell phone when the parents wanted to talk or the students needed additional help.

Sometimes, when the mood struck me, these pacts even included a team hand shake and "go team!" moment. (Once a camp counselor, always a camp counselor).

Anyone who has peeked at my homepage knows that I love the phrase: On est ensemble ~ We're in this together. By the end of my conferences, I was pleased knowing that I had tried to foster that same spirit with my students' families: Together, we are going to ensure that students succeed in school.

After all, if it takes a village to raise a child, then it sure as hell takes a village to make sure they do their homework.

With love xxx,

Akissi