Teachers consistently say they want to spend less time doing administrative tasks and more time teaching. A rural Texas school district is piloting an artificial intelligence tool that promises to help educators do just that.
Jim Beasley, the director of technology for the Llano Independent school district, and his wife Maurie Beasley, the network system administrator and a former teacher and assistant principal, developed a chatbot named Agnes that serves as a virtual personal assistant for school employees. The tool became available this fall for educators in the nearly 1,900-student school district.
Agnes—named after the little girl in the Despicable Me movies—can answer teachers’ questions about school and district policies, look up timely information like schedules and extra-duty assignments, and share information about the state education code.
The Beasleys, who also have a consulting company for AI in education, spoke to Education Week about the initial rollout of Agnes and how teachers can use AI for other time-saving measures. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What gave you the idea for Agnes?
Jim: I’ve been doing trainings here a long time—I’ve been here for 18 years. There’s always a bunch of information that we would like to get to teachers, and no matter how hard you try, the training just doesn’t always seem to stick.
So a year and a half ago, we started creating our own [training] app. But then large language models [like ChatGPT] came on the scene, and I got a little bit obsessed.
Maurie: I had to tell him—because we are married—'I have to have my first cup of coffee before you can start talking about artificial intelligence.’
Jim: So we decided that ... we’re gonna make our own AI instead.
What kind of questions can teachers ask?
Maurie: Of course you have your district information—this is our code of conduct, this is our HR documentation. What’s the superintendent’s phone extension? What’s the payday for this month? That kind of thing.
But then on a campus level, we have digested information—like [schools’] duty schedules and testing schedules. Since I was an assistant principal, I knew this is what teachers are always looking for. “Where did I put that piece of paper?” And you’re digging through your desk: “When does the window open for the first curriculum-based assessment?” “Who’s supposed to be on duty with me?,” because you show up for your duty post, and you’re the only one there.
We’ve been piloting it into classrooms, and also for administrators. My administrators are actually really wanting us to add additional information. For instance, my elementary principal has what we call a year at a glance. It’s basically, “OK, the first nine weeks you’re gonna cover all of these Texas [state standards], and the second nine weeks, you’re covering these [standards].” It’s how we keep you on track for testing.
So she wants her specific “year at glance” schedule to be ingested by Agnes, and that way, her teachers can go in and say, “OK, what am I supposed to be covering? Oh, that’s week one, week two, week three.” It keeps them on task for their lesson planning.
Jim: We actually called [Agnes] an onboarding tool, originally. Teacher turnover is what it is now in public schools. Our future daughter-in-law came and worked at the district, and we saw the challenge because she was freshly out of college, freshly getting into teaching. And she started two weeks late, so she missed all that beginning-of-the-year training. That was another thing we were trying to address with Agnes.
Maurie: “Where’s the copy machine?”
What was teachers’ feedback after they piloted the chatbot?
Jim: I have a group of teachers that I kind of focus on with new technology. They tend to be the seasoned teachers, and when you put something new in [front of them], there’s somewhat of a learning curve. But there’s also, “Do I even want to mess with it right now? Because I’m busy.”
We actually sat down with some of those teachers. The feedback has been good. What’s been interesting is not whether or not they like it, it’s, “Can you add this to it?” Most of the documentation that Maurie was discussing earlier is created to be thumbtacked on a board. But when you give it to me, and it’s just an image, or it’s part of a PDF, sometimes the AI doesn’t do well with that. You have to massage it a little bit. It’s been challenging for us, but we’re getting past it now and figuring out the optimal way to take that data and get it in there.
We don’t want them to have to ask the question a particular way. We want it to be a completely natural language, because everybody asks questions differently.
Maurie: When I go into the different classrooms that we’re piloting it into, we pull up Agnes and I’ll say, “OK, ask.” And then I sit there, and I write down how they’re asking the question.
If I ask an AI, “Who is the payroll clerk?,” the AI might not know the word clerk. It’s going to look for payroll, and it should give you a correct answer. But how else are they going to ask? “Who do I talk to about my paycheck?” A totally different way to ask the question. So we come back and test it to make sure that the AI is giving the correct answers, in multiple ways.
Were there any concerns from the district about privacy or security?
Jim: Both. We created it from day one where you have to authenticate to your Google account before you can see it. I have no intention of making it publicly available even though I’m not putting student information in it. [All the documentation] really is publicly available. But I have this thing about hackers—they always seem to be a little smarter than I am. I figure, I’m just going to put it behind security, and that way I don’t have to think about all that right now.
Maurie: So you have to be an employee of Llano ISD [to access it]. Eventually, we might make portions of it available on our website, where a parent can ask questions. All Agnes is going to be able to have access to are things that are already posted on our website. It’s just a natural language interface.
Beyond onboarding and information-sharing, how else can AI make teachers’ jobs easier?
Maurie: Accommodations. [Say] I have a 3rd grade reading class. Some of those kids are already reading on a 3rd grade level, but some of those kids are still down at the 2nd grade level. I need to teach these kids comprehension. So I am trying to find leveled readers—basically the same story, but one’s at a little higher vocabulary versus the other one. Well, I have to go find that resource. ... Or I can go to an AI.
And we did this [with a teacher]. She was mind-blown. We asked the AI to write a story about a little girl and her dog on a 3rd grade reading level with specific guidance toward teaching comprehension. It wrote a little four- or five-paragraph story. The teacher took that and read it. She edited a couple of things. Then she put it back in an AI and said, “Please rewrite this story on a 2nd grade level.”
It rewrote the same story on a 2nd grade level, and then on a 1st grade level. She was able to literally, within 10 minutes, have a whole lesson with the materials, including a quiz attached to each one of the stories about comprehension covering this very specific Texas [standard].
Another thing that teachers really like about it is that it can take information and translate it. Now I know Google can do that, but for instance, if I have a student in my classroom that has made below a 70 [percent] three times in the last three weeks, and I need to compose an email to a parent about it, I can basically say, [without giving a student’s name], “Can you please do an email about a student who made below a 70 in my math class? I need it to be upbeat, and I need it to [say that] my office hours or my conference period is at this time.”
And it’s going to write a couple of paragraphs. We’re always telling teachers, underneath your signature, put “email assistance by ChatGPT.” Just let the parent know that you’re getting assistance with your email. But then I could say, please do this in Spanish. It’s enabling [teachers] to communicate better with language barriers.
Also, just lesson planning, brainstorming ideas. When I was [teaching] 4th grade, we covered verbs the same basic way every single year. There are so many different ways you can cover verbs. So it’s a really great brainstorming tool for [thinking about], how can I cover verbs with small groups? How can I cover verbs in centers?
[Teachers have said] they tried [AI] for lesson-planning, and it wasn’t that detailed. It’s because they’re not asking it the right way. They said, “Can I have a lesson plan on photosynthesis?” Well, it’s gonna give you a basic lesson plan.
But if I say, “I am a 5th grade teacher. May I have a lesson plan on photosynthesis using the Texas [standards] in the 5E model [engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate],” then it’s going to tell you the [standards], it’s gonna give you all the five Es. Teachers really like the fact that, then in the same chat, they can say for the explorer section, “May I have 10 more ideas?” Because maybe you don’t like all the ideas it gave you. We’re teaching them how to just keep querying it to get exactly what you want out of it.
The last thing that I think that teachers are really excited about is that [AI] creates rubrics for you. I can go in and say, “I need a rubric that’ll assess this on a 100-point scale,” and it’ll give me all the information.
Then I can take the paper from the kid and [without the student’s name] put it into ChatGPT or an AI and have it grade the paper based on the rubric that I had created. Even if I don’t stick with that grade, it still gives really constructive feedback—it gives me a way to help my student with specific areas of their writing.