By Winifred Curran
If there’s a conventional trajectory for becoming a teacher, Michael Tajchman has certainly not followed it. After four years of international development work with the Peace Corps in the tropical flats of Nepal, Mr. Tajchman returned to the U.S. to become a social worker. He found this work limiting, allowing him to spend only minimal time with children and families. He turned to teaching to have the opportunity to get to know children better, and in that way, make even more of a difference.
Mr. Tajchman brings this varied experience as well as an international perspective into the classroom. When teaching about the physics of water, he has students explore the social aspects to understand how water is not distributed equally. He then integrates this learning into math lessons, calculating how many children die because of a lack of access to water. This is heavy stuff for a third grader, but it is part of why he likes teaching this age group. They are still little, on the verge of becoming big, just losing their innocence but still optimistic. This matches Mr. Tajchman’s own personality; he is acutely aware of injustice, but recognizes that we have come far. He aims to push everyone, including himself, farther.
As both a teacher and a student, Mr. Tajchman embraces Ravenswood School’s positive discipline strategies. He admits to being just an average student when he was a third grader, but feels he would have excelled had he attended a school like Ravenswood. Memories of his own elementary school experience help him understand where his own students are coming from. His time as a social worker taught him what doesn’t work: isolation, a lack of autonomy, being told what to do. He is a strong proponent of arts integration, both for the culture of the school and human development. Arts integration helps us appreciate thinking and feeling, beauty and despair, he says. It fosters inquiry and is collaborative, and leads to a classroom environment in which children have autonomy and develop research methods tied to their interests.
Mr. Tajchman taught at two other schools before arriving at Ravenswood three years ago. Today, he says he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else and would send his own children here if he had any. Like the rest of the school, Mr. Tajchman is less concerned about test prep and more concerned about actual learning. He looks forward to grading assignments so that he can see how students are developing; it’s not just the same worksheets, the same assignments over and over, but a collaborative learning process.
Mr. Tajchman is not just a great teacher, but a lifelong learner. For many years, he has participated in a book club, along with some other Ravenswood teachers. These meetings are serious (i.e. no wine!) and allow Mr. Tajchman, as a reader, to develop strategies that help his young readers in the classroom. The group recently read Thrity Umrigar’s novel The Space Between Us about a wealthy woman and her servant in modern day Bombay. Mr. Tajchman’s class will be covering India for Ravenswood’s Spring 2014 World’s Fair. Once school is out for summer, he will be headed back to Nepal for his first visit in ten years.
While Mr. Tajchman loves Ravenswood School, getting used to the Chicago winter has been another matter entirely. He moved here in 1999 to be close to friends, having visited in the summer. His September move was greeted with sleet. But over the years, this fitness buff has learned to like winter. He bikes to work from his home in Edgewater on a rusty contraption that he parks kiddie-corner from the school, runs year round, and also practices yoga. He shares his home with a goldfish named Opal, and is close to family in his native Kansas.