Haystack EDU Plays Matchmaker for Teachers, Schools


On the phone with Haystack EDU founder, Tom Hayes, I can’t help but think of my well-worn copy of Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. “Good teaching,” Palmer says, “cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

As I talk to more and more entrepreneurs like Hayes, I’m beginning to think that you might be able to get away with replacing “teaching” and “teacher” with “entrepreneurship” and “entrepreneur.”

That sense of identity and integrity come through loud and clear as Hayes tells me about Haystack’s recent showing at last month’s New Orleans Entrepreneur Week.

“We had some success,” he admits.

That’s a little bit of an understatement. The ed tech startup took runner-up in 4.0 Schools education pitch and first place in the Power Pitch, a competition open to every industry at the event. As the Power Pitch winner, Haystack was awarded annual funding.

Haystack, which launched in mid-March, hinges on the principle that teachers and schools need a way to connect beyond “technique,” that proclivities and mission and vocation have something to do with a teacher’s success when it comes to measurable results in an increasingly data driven (here and here) education landscape.

A social networking enterprise at heart, with Haystack Hayes has built a space for teachers to tell potential employers who they are, what they’ve done, and how they’ve done it. First and foremost, Hayes sees his application as the first steps toward a “differentiated market,” akin to baseball free agency, for teachers.

“I had long believed in the importance of what it means to be a teacher and how society doesn’t always recognize teachers for what they are,” Hayes says. “There’s a lot of different ways that teachers aren’t recognized or given the prestige they deserve for what can be a very challenging job.”

But Haystack aspires to be more than the educator’s LinkedIn. Like so many of the tech and education innovators who call  New Orleans home, Hayes wants to re-imagine the way we think about education in the United States. Wanting to make life better for bedraggled or idealistic teachers isn’t an end unto itself, Hayes explains.

“The best teachers who have left the profession say they would have stayed if their top need would have been met,” Hayes says, referring to recent TNTP report, “The Irreplaceables.” “To me that indicated that fit is of the utmost importance. Trying to get that match right on the front end—between the teacher and the school—would potentially lead to people staying in the profession and staying in their schools a lot longer.”

Each year 600,000 teaching positions need to be filled. That’s sixteen-percent of the total teaching profession. And that’s a big problem to solve. According to Hayes, teacher retention is all about matching educators with the right schools.

Haystack proposes an equation where everyone comes out ahead. Schools pay a subscription fee to have access to this self-selecting, mission-driven market, and teachers find positions at schools where they’re valued for their unique craft, contributions, and ability to achieve the results schools are looking for. As of our conversation, 35 institutions had signed up in order to view the 400 teacher profiles on Haystack.

Many of those schools looking to match with great teachers are charter schools, Hayes says, but he thinks more large urban school districts will follow the lead of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, and move to a portfolio pledge, a model which, among other things, favors site-based hiring. With hiring decentralized it won’t take long for principals will get wise to where to find the best teachers: Haystack.

Down the road, though, Hayes wants to help teachers re-imagine their craft, perhaps to rekindle that sense of identity and integrity in a profession that can feel thankless or cynical.

“While we’re initially focused on connecting schools and teachers,” he says, “there’s this notion that this has to be around full-time jobs. What I ultimately want to create is the place for a teacher to represent themselves professionally and both find and be found for opportunities. I’m trying to create the mindset that creating the profile here is a good professional move…By keeping this up to date and showing who you are as a teacher and the unique value-contribution teacher that you are, who knows what opportunities might come your way. You might not even know what to look for.”  

I don’t know if Tom Hayes was looking for New Orleans, but he and the Crescent City have been a good match. Katrina made landfall a week aftere began his two year stint as a Teach for America corps member in New Orleans. He helped start a KIPP school for evacuees in Houston, returned to New Orleans, where he aided in cleanup as part of a FEMA-TFA partnership, and taught at one of the first New Orleans schools to reopen, O. Perry Walker High School.

A graduate of Stanford’s Joint MA/MBA program, Hayes returned to New Orleans with the idea that would grow into Haystack, an idea he had the opportunity to hash out over the course of a month in the 4.0 School Lab.  

“4.0, they have really hit upon something that’s interesting. Ed specific accelerators [such as Imagine K12] get people at the stage where they have a pretty hashed out business idea and they want to ramp up.” 4.0 Schools is different, says Hayes, because “they want people to question the way things are and start to explore using really small bets ways to improve upon things…It’s really helping push people to not accept the status quo and giving them the tool belt to help them think about the ways we can change education.”

While Hayes admits that finding technical expertise in New Orleans has been a challenge at times (Haystack, he says, is on the lookout for a CTO), the city has been a good place to be as a tech entrepreneur.

“One of the leaders of ed tech in New Orleans is Kickboard, and the more companies like this establish and attract talent to the region—it just creates a more vibrant ecosystem. My hope is that we contribute to that at some point as well.”