EduTech startup WeTeach connects retired teachers with Chinese students learning English through WeChat

There is no shortage of online platforms connecting students with tools to help them further their education. At the tap of a few buttons – and a nice fee – students can find a personal tutor, study notes, extra lecture videos, and more, helping them learn wherever they may be around the world.

WeTeach, founded by Tom Williams, Elliott Clutterbuck, and Zhou Kang, is a new Australian offering that aims to help Chinese students learn English by connecting them to retired teachers around the world.

Rather than replicating existing online models that have turned education into a simple transaction, WeTeach wants a deep rapport to develop between its students and teachers, where teachers nurture the students and the students in turn develop love and affection for their teachers. The startup wants students to know there is someone truly invested in their life and development, while the retired teachers can still pursue their love of teaching and gain a sense of fulfilment.

“We’re really looking to put a very social aspect back into education. We have found that a lot of education is leaning towards being commoditised and quite transactional, where I pay money to an educator who then downloads some knowledge to me,” Williams said.

“I think that approach really takes out a lot of the human aspect to what education is, where students have a mentor, a friend, who takes them on a journey through unknown territory that they explore together. The student benefits from the experienced guidance of the educator, and the educator can see things in a new way through the eyes of the students.”

Williams said the idea for WeTeach came about mostly by accident. He was staying with his family in a Western Australia beach town with a large concentration of retirees last December, where he noticed that a recently widowed friend of his mother’s was looking for something meaningful to do and wanted a little extra income. He thought there would be other retirees who were the same.

At the same time, a Chinese friend contacted Williams asking about online education companies and whether he could recommend a tutor to her son. While Williams saw many of these had good marketing and a fairly solid product, he thought the quality of the teachers wasn’t as high as it could be; neither did he feel that they put quality education above profit making.

“My mum’s a teacher, and the last thing I want to see her do when she retires is watch reruns of Midsomer Murders every day. It’s a cracking show, but it’s something that can only be done every so often. I thought, she has a lot of skills, but if she leaves the school community she won’t use them. She will also be a bit more by herself at home and will miss the interaction with the students. A flexible online teaching opportunity would be a great way to keep her active in education,” Williams said.

“She can learn about a new world, too. People are very interested in China and want to know more about it but, as you can imagine, as you can well imagine, the stuff you read in newspapers doesn’t quite always tell the full story. Observing from afar is very different to interacting with a person at a local level, especially a kid whose opinion on what’s going on in the world they’ll inherit is probably one that actually matters most.”

So he connected the student to a couple of retired teachers and waited to see what would happen. A few weeks later the mother contacted again saying she had told parents of her son’s classmates about it and now they wanted to try it out.

“The teachers had told their friends about it and they really liked teaching online, so since we saw both sides were interested in this, we sat down and did it properly,” Williams explained.

Williams is now based in China, and with he and his cofounders speaking Chinese, he said they have become very involved and attached to the community as they look to get it off the ground.

The team has also raised some funding from a “very prominent” private investor in China but, four months on from that understated December launch, the facilitating of introductions and lessons is still a little haphazard. Teachers are connected with students over WeChat, the gargantuan Chinese network that allows people to chat, conduct video calls, share files, and transfer money.

They have also set up a community on WeChat where teachers, parents, and students can interact and share with each other parts of their daily life.

“We are really looking to build cross-border friendships. We now have a few parents who are interested in coming to Australia and staying with some of the teachers in Western Australia, and we have a number of teachers looking to come up to Shanghai to stay with the kids and learn a bit more about China,” Williams said.

The delivery of class however is conducted through Skype, with students and teachers able to share the screen with their work, so it isn’t just “an intimidating face-to-face interview like it would be over WeChat or FaceTime,” Williams explained.

The first classes usually begin with the teacher reading through a book with the student, which allows for easy conversation to develop and exposure to cultural ideas and knowledge expressed in the books. As the lessons continue and a rapport develops, teachers can create tailored lessons.

Rather than spending all their time and money developing a finished platform, Williams said the cofounders have focused on a learn-by-doing approach that involves understanding their market, what the problems are, and how to solve them.

Pricing is one aspect that they have been mulling over; WeTeach asked its first teachers what they thought a reasonable amount would be and were told $10 per 25 minutes, which equates to approximately 120 RMB. WeTeach adds a fee between $1-2 on top of this, part of which is donated to local Chinese education charities supporting rural students.

As well as this being over minimum wage, Williams said the lesson price helps the teachers stay under the income threshold that keeps their pension coming. However this is a suggested price, with educators able to set their own price.

There are about 100 students on WeTeach so far, and just under 20 teachers. With the demand from students clearly there, Williams said the team is focusing on reaching out to retired teachers associations and implementing a referral system in the hopes of encouraging teachers to get their peers on board, which will go towards creating a more vibrant community for the teachers themselves.

“We also wanted to have something that would bring other teachers together. The teachers through our platform can meet other teachers, giving them an opportunity to share their experiences about teaching online, teaching Chinese students, and the joys and tribulations that have come with that,” Williams said.

Over the next 12 months, WeTeach aims to have around 2,000 teachers signed up to the platform from Australia, the UK, and North America in particular. In the meantime it will look to launch a full product and develop partnerships with organisations that can help it move forward.

Image: Teachers Marie Donovan and Heather Tompkin, and WeTeach cofounder Elliott Clutterbuck. Source: Supplied.