Conrad Wilkinson Schwarz was inspired by one of his students to learn how to use AI to develop a website to help busy teachers. Read more about how he kept learning and going back to the drawing board to get Instanteach right.
1. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day for this interview. Can you start off by telling us where you teach and how long have you been teaching?
I teach English in Mexico City and have been doing so since 2016. At first, I was teaching through agencies and language schools but eventually moved towards getting my own students and working independently. I really enjoyed the freedom it gave me and the fact that the demand for English classes is so high in Mexico was of course really handy.
2. Can you describe a typical day?
Right now I work in an office as a translator. The work is pretty on and off so I spend half the time to running the website, publishing on social media, sending teachers their material and slowly but surely improving the technology behind the website so that it can run smoothly. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I still teach a business class at 7:30 a.m., then get to the office around 9:30 a.m., leave at 6:30 p.m. and if necessary, will keep working at home on the website until 9-10 pm.
3. Teacher self-care is so important. How do you relax?
Fantastic question. I am notoriously bad at relaxing, but crazily enough I find completing a set of tasks or reaching a new milestone to be incredibly rewarding and relaxing in itself. The problem with the website I run is that it never sleeps and demands work on the weekends as well. I try to play football at least once a week which really helps with any stress, as well as watching movies with my wife.
4. You took on the tremendous task of starting a company. Can you talk a bit about it?
One of my students was a founder of a tech startup in Mexico City and he wanted 2 hours of class per day (he´s insane, I know). He exclusively wanted articles and topics about technology. Through talking to him on a daily basis (10 hours a week), I learned so much about the tech landscape and about running a startup. This gave me the confidence to try it myself and I launched Instanteach.com at the start of 2018, a site that aims to change the way English teachers get their educational resources by personalizing it to the specific needs of their students. This was a problem I felt passionately about because I believe solving it would immensely help teachers and also their students, so the opportunity for impact is off the chart!
Also, I noticed that almost no Edtech companies directly aim to help teachers (they are usually focused on school administration) and I don't feel that´s very fair. Teachers deserve more! It has been incredibly fun and instructive and I'm so happy that I took the lunge.
5. Can you tell us more about Instanteach?
I wanted to find a way to use AI (Artificial Intelligence) to benefit education. I watched this amazing Tedtalk by Scott Bolland (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cYIvfS-knA and it all clicked! I realized AI should be used for personalizing educational content and the pace of the curriculum for students. We all learn in different ways however until now it was difficult to personalize the classroom to the needs of the students. This possibility is now starting to open up thanks to new technologies like AI. There weren’t many companies that aimed to help teachers and I strongly feel teachers need help with automating the material selecting process so they save time and can just focus on teaching.
6. You manage to balance teaching and work on Instanteach? What is your best productivity tip?
One thing that works well for me is to work on a task for a set amount of time. I find that I am more productive when I have 1 hour to work between two classes rather than having a whole afternoon free. A time constraint makes me work faster and more efficiently.
7. Where can we find Instanteach?
The URL is https://instanteach.com/. You can create an account and then provide some information about your students (age, numbers, skill levels, etc.) Then straight away, the system will start recommending topics and resources for you to use with your students. Every time we generate material, we use your assessment of your students which means that over a period of time, we can also start showing you a visualization of your students´ progress (through a graph for example). We really hope this sort of data can be extremely useful in supporting the teacher.
8. Where can we find you on social media?
9. What else are you working on?
We want to improve Instanteach so we're looking at usage data and user feedback. Rather than launching a whole new version of the website every year, I'd rather make small incremental changes which steadily improves the website over time. Some ideas we have are a module for Language Schools, the website making homework recommendations directly to students and creating a pen pal section that allows teachers and students from around the world to write to one another.
10. How do you promote or market Instanteach?
Social media has been a great blessing for sharing the website and getting people to know about the website. The primary source of promotion is through Facebook. We try to provide a lot of value to teachers by sharing good quality lesson plans. We share those lesson plans on the Facebook page and more importantly in many Facebook groups. The great thing about providing value upfront to your target users means that they will naturally start looking into your service without you having to nudge them. I would recommend this approach to any teacherpreneur - don´t just post about your website/resource, but rather provide something of value upfront out of kindness and then people will organically start researching and discovering your service. It's a great long-term strategy.
The same strategy but with a different twist has been very effective on Instagram where we focus on consuming and commenting on other peoples' posts. When you engage and encourage others, they will naturally start to follow you and engage with you. This has been by far the most effective technique for growing our Instagram following.
11. Do you do everything yourself or do you hire people with specific skills to help you?
At the start of the year, I started working with John Mulders, another English teacher. He loved the vision of the site and accepted my invitation to work on the project with me. I'm happy to have him on board because it was no longer feasible for me to do everything myself. He does a lot of the lesson plans and helps with the social media presence which means I have more time sorting out the tech of the website. It was very important to hire a teacher that could understand the problem we are trying to solve first hand. I feel this is an important element in hiring - find someone who is directly impacted by the problem you are trying to solve.
12. What skills did you gain from classroom teaching that have allowed you to excel as a teacherpreneur?
I've never been great at public speaking or talking to a large group. However, teaching has allowed me to grow in confidence and understand that this weakness is something that I can overcome with the right amount of practice and with the right frame of mind. I've also come to understand how people learn and that has vastly improved my ability to create fun but effective lesson plans.
13. What have you had to do outside of your comfort zone as a teacherpreneur?
Many things! That's what is so great about having taken this route. Overall, I would describe myself as quite an introvert, however putting Instanteach out there has obliged me to be outgoing, whether that be in making videos, sharing thoughts daily and tips on Facebook, talking with fellow teachers through Skype or in person. To make things happen, you need to be very outgoing and that has been a great education for me.
14. I talk to many teachers about their fear or doubt in trying something new or "putting themselves out there". What advice would you give to these teachers?
It's normal to be scared but you need to understand that when you try something new, it is a win-win situation. If you succeed, hoorah and if you don't, you will learn and grow so much as a person that you won't even care that you didn't succeed. No matter what happens, you win, so no excuses.
15. Is there anything that you would like to add?
One very important tip that I wish to share with fellow teacherpreneurs is this “try the idea that you have on a small scale”. The reason for this is that testing your idea is so much more valuable than the idea itself. To give you my example, I tried the first version of the service with a small number of teachers, 12 to be exact. After 2 weeks, 10 of those teachers had stopped using the service because they said it wasn't easy to use. I realized the original way I had envisioned the service was all wrong so I re-organized and simplified it and then launched a second version. Then 300 teachers started using it and from then, I kept refining and refining. So the lesson is: test and learn fast! Try different iterations until people start using the service and when you are prototyping, you can use the bare minimum (Google forms, Google sheets) and you don´t need a fancy website.
Thank you so much, Conrad, for sharing your teacherpreneur journey. It's interesting to see how forms of technology can be used to help busy teachers. All the best. Patrice
Interested in learning more about transitioning from a teacher to teacherpreneur but don’t know how to get started? Here are some resources:
My name is Patrice Palmer, M.Ed., M.A., CPP. I have more than 20 years’ experience as an ESL Teacher, TESL Trainer, and Writer. I spent seven amazing years teaching in Hong Kong and have taught students from 8 to 80 years in a variety of programs. I now work as a teacherpreneur doing the things that I love such as writing books, courses and teaching materials; coaching teacherpreneurs, travelling at any time of the year and applying the science of positive psychology to all my work (www.patricepalmer.ca).
Contact me at [email protected]
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