How a 29-year-old teacher in Detroit uses math to address challenging subjects

This is a spotlight in our emerging leaders series where we profile under-30 changemakers doing great work with youth.

Michael Payne knows what he's up against. He's a ninth grade math teacher at an art and design school. In a place full of right-brained creative types, that puts his class, as he tells it, pretty low on the popularity totem pole.

Payne, 29, teaches math at Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies (HFA: SCS), a public charter school for area children, grades six through 12, interested in art and design. It's located in the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education in New Center, a building that's part of the College for Creative Studies (CCS) campus and home to Shinola.

CCS works closely with HFA: SCS, helping build a curriculum that prepares students for careers in art and design. Theoretically, a student could spend sixth grade through retirement in the building itself, starting at HFA: SCS, getting their degree from CCS, and then designing watches at Shinola.

Still, there's math. And if it's a subject that's more challenging for his students' attention, Payne is going to find ways to make the class more enjoyable for them. "I try to give them choices so that the learning becomes part of their responsibility, so that they can take ownership of the class," he says.

Payne brings math to real life as often as possible. He has students create presentations where they connect math to their desired professions. He finds the math in relatable subjects like sports and current events.

So while Payne's students may be most interested in the visual arts, he works at illustrating how math is ever-present. And he doesn't shy away from the challenge, either. As a younger teacher of a student population that is predominately African-American and from the city of Detroit, Payne connects math to the things they see on a day-to-day basis.

"What I do is try to use the math in real issues that kids may be facing," says Payne. "For example, Detroit has a blight issue. We talk about abandoned homes—they relate to that. We can talk about housing markets. We can talk about discrimination, talk about red-lining. We can talk about all those things through math.

"It's focusing on what's actually happening and how they may or may not be affected by that."

For Payne, he views his job as much more than a math teacher, but as a mentor, role model, guidance counselor, and psychologist, all in one.

He grew up in a small town in Delaware and enrolled at Morehouse College to study economics. He says he thought maybe one day he'd teach, after he retired, but he initially went to school to become an entrepreneur. A series of events led him here, where he saw how necessary it was for people who care to become teachers.

Volunteer work with the Boys and Girls Club showed him how much he liked working with children. He enrolled in the Urban Teachers program and taught in Baltimore, where he received his Master's Degree. During a stint as a paraprofessional at one school, Payne worked with children that were struggling to learn, which inspired him on the path he's taken.

"I realized that there was so much work to be done in education," he says. "I just felt like I needed to be part of a solution."

Payne moved to Detroit in 2015 and began working at HFA: SCS, which has engaged him in multiple ways. He's teaching summer school. He's the varsity girls basketball coach for the Henry Ford Academy Mustangs. He thinks he'll help out with the school's baseball team next year and is hoping that the school starts a football team, too. He's developing a summer program where he'll teach skills like writing, statistics, and economics under the guise of analyzing professional sports, which could become part of the curriculum one day.

All in all, while he may be a math teacher at an art and design school, Payne is actively involving himself in a much bigger mission.

"I always tell the students that I'm not the keeper of all knowledge," he says. "I can offer suggestions, I can give advice, I can tell you what I know. But the most important thing is that you have the talent and the skill to acquire knowledge on your own."

Model D asked Michael Payne about himself and his work in Detroit.

What drew you to this profession?  

I could tell that there was a need for more black male role models and educators in the school system. Period. When I first got into working in the schools, I could tell they were missing that image of themselves as they got older. Because when you're a young black boy, you want to see yourself in someone else—that's how you look for role models. How often do we have positive black role models? I'm not sure. But I know that I wanted to be that in the kids' lives, in the classroom. 

How is being 29 years old an asset in the work you do?

The most advantageous part of that was they can look up to you and not feel that you're old and disconnected. Because I'm younger, and a little more connected to what's going on in their world, I can relate to it but still hold them accountable in a way that any adult would. 

I think my youth helps me keep not only the curriculum and how I teach relevant, but it also helps in building a relationship with the students. Kids look for a father figure, a mother figure, a big brother figure all the time. And how you approach that is based upon building trust. And so once you build that trust and they can trust you and know that you don't judge them, that you have their best interests at heart, teaching them is a whole lot easier.

How do issues like race and diversity affect or inform your work?

Them being black children makes teaching more urgent. I tell them all the time: there's a lot facing you when you get out of here. There's a lot against you and you have to make sure that you're the sharpest tool that you can be in order to fight whatever adversity you come across. Because, to be honest, the American culture of education doesn't teach to black children, doesn't teach for black children. 

I think having pride in yourself has to be taught. Being proud of who you are and where you come from, what you've been through, is important to a child's self esteem. Once your self-esteem is built, then you can be more courageous in the risks they take. They won't be defensive or quiet in the math classroom if they know where math comes from as part of their history, if they've seen people like them do it before. 

That's why that Hidden Figures movie meant a lot to young girls because math and science has been pushed as a male idea. Representation is important. Making sure that they feel represented, making sure that they feel encouraged and proud of themselves and that they can learn about everything they can get a hold of.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photo by Nick Hagen.
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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.