The founder of this edtech company finds the right substitute teachers for schools in need.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
With his love of innovation and passion for education to guide his team, Mike Teng is the co-founder and CEO of Swing Education, a platform-based recruiter, screener, and supporter of thousands of substitute teachers nationwide. Mike previously served as Director of Technology at Rocketship Education. “Every school day is a valuable learning opportunity, and we think every class should be led by a high-quality educator,” says Teng. “We help make this possible by connecting schools with qualified substitute teachers.”
He founded the company in 2015. A former K-12 administrator, Teng know what it’s like to spend frustrating early mornings and late nights trying to find the right substitute teachers — only for things to fall through. His team is driven by a common goal: make it easier for schools to find reliable, high-quality substitute teachers, when they need them.
‘For [our] part, we hope that we can continue to use technology to build on a foundation of human connection.’
They’ve filled 200,000+ absence days to date — and saved schools countless administrative hours along the way. They even find substitutes for remote or distance learning, tutoring, and paraprofessional support. “We’re excited about how we’ve been able to help schools improve the education experience for staff and students alike,” he says. In this interview, he talks about his influences, some key lessons he’s learned along the way to creating a successful edtech company, and from where comes his love of innovation and passion for education.
What prompted you to get involved in education way back when?
I was originally inspired to join the education reform movement by Paul Tough’s book Whatever It Takes about Geoffrey Canada and The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). It validated the idea that education alone wasn’t enough, but that combining education and community had a shot to break the cycles of generational poverty, inequity, and give all kids a real shot at the American dream. It was incredibly inspiring to hear others dedicating their careers to helping end poverty, and it started a personal journey that led me to the education industry. I found my way into education through a public charter school organization called Rocketship Education as the Head of Technology. This eventually led me to start Swing Education with the desire to be able to contribute to the work that every school district across the country was doing.
When did technology enter into your education work?
I studied Computer Science and Engineering at UCLA and began my career as a software engineer. When I entered into education, it just made sense that the best way for me to do that was to leverage my tech background; I felt like Rocketship was a great place to start my way into education because of that.
What lessons did you learn from your time with Rocketship regarding use of tech solutions?
This sounds ridiculously obvious in hindsight, but education is a hard problem to solve. Measuring the efficacy of technology is also hard.
What prompted you to create Swing Education? What issue(s) were you looking to solve or address?
I initially started helping with logistics and coordination of substitute teachers as part of my role at Rocketship, but realized that the issue of finding enough substitute teachers was so universal for schools.
When we fill an empty classroom with a sub, we give students continuity in their learning and help schools operate uninterrupted. We also provide access to careers in education by helping people become substitute teachers and making it easier to find work.
It’s been exciting to help solve such a crucial problem for schools across the country.
How does it work? Why that approach? What sort of feedback from users did you incorporate?
Swing Education works with school districts to find and schedule substitute teachers. Substitute teachers get free and easy access to substitute teaching jobs at any school that’s on our platform. We also help guide those who are getting their substitute permits for their first time, and provide financial support to bring diverse educators into classrooms.
We’ve incorporated all kinds of feedback from schools and teachers into our platform, and use feedback to improve how we match subs with schools. We’re always trying to find ways to improve the experience for schools and substitute teachers and have worked to try to make sure the platform benefits everyone involved.
What highlights do you have where Swing is helping schools and districts? What’s the response like?
Swing is currently partnered with more than 2,500 schools and districts, and we’ve filled more than 250,000 teacher absence days to date. We’re working hard every day to provide an even better experience for our customers, but I’m thrilled that the response really has been quite positive. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback about the awesome substitute teachers who work with us and how our technology has helped schools with coordination.
Obviously not all schools and districts use us in the same way – some rely on Swing more heavily for things like professional development, others for absences on Mondays/Friday, some for long-term vacancies. But in general, we’ve found that schools and districts appreciate that Swing is similarly motivated to make a positive difference in education, and that we can help ensure there’s an educator in every classroom.
Broad question: What is tech’s role in ed?
Tech’s role should be to increase access. That’s something that has happened across a lot of aspects of other industries and parts of society. It can create connections from person to person or people to information and hopefully people can continue to be creative about how that can happen in education. For Swing’s part, we hope that we can continue to use technology to build on a foundation of human connection.
Also: In your LinkedIn bio you relate pushing the tech envelope and quality of a high quality school. Can you elaborate on this connection?
Tech for tech’s sake is always a danger. It can be flashy without the outcomes that you’re looking for. It can also cause things to be more expensive and less sustainable. It just has to be leveraged with an understanding of what the consequences are and what the all-in costs are, and that’s what I hoped to do at Rocketship. I wanted to provide everyone at Rocketship with safe guardrails without being overly paternalistic about how technology was supposed to be used. If any teacher or principal had ideas, I never wanted to stand in the way.
What is the state of education, in your view, today?
There are so many good people trying to do so many good things. There’s too much skepticism about “other people’s” motivations. I mostly wish that disagreement on how to move forward wasn’t equated so much with assuming the other side has malicious intentions.
Any trends you particularly have your eye on? A.I., etc? Thoughts on the future in 5 years? 10 years?
There’s definitely a trend with education being a part of a larger social justice movement. I certainly hope Swing Education can play some small part in it if it means more students can experience continued learning. By expanding access to teaching and lowering barriers to become a certificated substitute teacher, students will have teachers who look like them, which data shows is a major factor in long-term student success. Then we work to prepare a diverse community of substitute teachers to lead diverse and inclusive classrooms.
‘In my eyes, education will always be one of the highest leverage ways to foster that talent, so I think the more we can raise our expectations for the human spirit, the brighter the future will be.’
Anything else you care to add or emphasize regarding ed, tech, edtech, teachers, or helping educators?
I’m an optimist at heart and am so excited for the future. I hope everyone can find ways to adopt the mentality that “talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.” In my eyes, education will always be one of the highest leverage ways to foster that talent, so I think the more we can raise our expectations for the human spirit, the brighter the future will be.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]