Instead of Retirement, Relocation
When most of his colleagues were looking at retirement, Mike Kirchner and his wife felt that they still had a lot of miles left. Rather than retire, they decided to continue their career in the unique environment of a hospital ship. Mike was a high school biology teacher for 21 years in the United States and is now thrilled to be teaching Mercy Ships students who range from grades 6-12.
In this episode, Mike shares why he’s not interested in sharpening his golf game in the second half of his life, his joys in living and learning from an international community, and his encouragement for people young and old to consider volunteering with Mercy Ships.
A sage man with much enthusiasm, Mike is sure to inspire and cause you to seriously consider getting on board with us!
Mercy Ships has brought hope and healing to those who need it most for over 40 years. Using hospital ships, we are able to provide safe, free surgical care to those in need and bring medical training to healthcare workers living in the countries we serve.
New Mercies Podcast Transcript
Welcome to the New Mercies, a podcast by Mercy Ships, where we’ll take you behind the scenes and on board our incredible hospital ships that are transforming lives all over the world. We invite you to join us each week as we sit down with our crew, patients, volunteers, and partners to hear their stories of life-changing hope and healing.
The school year has officially started and today as kids go back to school all over the world, we celebrate our incredible teachers. The Mercy Ships academies are welcoming back students as well. So today on New Mercies we get to hear from one of their teachers.
Mike Kirchner is a seasoned teacher having taught for over 21 years in the United States. And while many of his colleagues are looking at retirement, Mike and his wife decided not to retire, but to relocate and serve with Mercy Ships. Mike’s enthusiasm is sure to get you thinking about coming to serve with us as well. Here’s my interview with Mike Kirchner.
Well, Mike, welcome to New Mercies. And welcome to a brand-new school year.
Thank you so much.
There’s always a lot of excitement and anticipation when a new school year starts. So, it’s really fun to get to talk to you as one of our academy teachers on board. You’re starting your second-year teaching with Mercy Ships. So why don’t you kick us off by telling us a highlight from your first year being the secondary science teacher on board.
This year I got to cover two fields that I love. While I was on the Africa Mercy, I taught history. And then I moved over to the Global Mercy, where I was the science teacher. One of the challenges, but also one of the most exciting things for me about being a teacher on the ship is the international community. Having students from all different parts of the world, not just students, of course, as a teacher, I’m interacting with students on a daily basis from different parts of the world, but when I go and eat lunch, I may be having lunch with someone from Norway, from Benin, from Australia — my wife, and I try to sit with different people. And a lot of times while I’m eating, I will pull out my phone and pull out the map feature and learn about Sweden or wherever who I’m sitting with is from.
But in my classroom, I’m dealing with students from New Zealand, from the United States, from Scandinavia, from different parts of the world. And, as I said, that’s a challenge. But it’s also exciting. And I should also mention, in addition to teaching social studies, as well as science, I also taught a Bible class. You know, a highlight for me was seeing how consistent God is throughout the world. I taught an Old Testament class this spring and I have students from Brazil in the class who would regularly say to me, “You sound just like my parents.” And my response was, “Well, that’s because your parents are smart.” But it really is because we all serve the same God. So that was kind of amusing and affirming for me to hear him say, you’re telling me the same thing my parents are telling me at home. So, I would say that that’s been a highlight for me to have that international experience.
It’s so neat, because in the midst of all of the diversity of all of the different countries and languages and cultures, God does not change. And God is consistent in the same. Well, speaking of consistency, and things staying the same, that wasn’t necessarily your experience your first year with Mercy Ships, because you mentioned you got to teach on both the Africa Mercy and the Global Mercy, a very unique experience. So why don’t you tell us what that was like to experience both ships?
Initially, I was teaching on the Africa Mercy and because of COVID the Africa Mercy was in the Canary Islands. So, when I first joined the ship in the summer of 2021, we were in the Canary Islands. Wherever the ship is, we can do school and what they needed for me there was to teach history. And so, while my background is science, history is a passion of mine, so I was eager to do that. The Africa Mercy has been in service for many, many years and it’s comfortable and has many traditions. And then in January, we moved over to the Global Mercy, which is brand new. And so I’m really glad that I got to have both of those experiences. I would say being on the Global Mercy at least this year, was a little different, probably than what it will be in the future when the ship is in service in Africa.
I got to spend something like six weeks in Belgium and then several weeks in the Netherlands, then we sailed from Rotterdam down to the Canary Islands, spent some time there and then ultimately ended up in Senegal where we had the Africa celebration with the two ships together. And that was a tremendous delight. When we sailed into Senegal, the Africa Mercy was already there during service and because of the fact that I spent last fall on the Africa Mercy, we have many dear friends on the Africa Mercy. And you know, I wasn’t expecting to be as emotional about it as I was when we pulled in and we could see the Africa Mercy. And then we pulled it got close enough that we could see the decks were filled with people waving and cheering and chanting “GLM,” and we were chanting “AFM” cheering for them. And you know, it was just such a delight for those two ships to pull alongside one another. And, for the first time actually be in service together.
Well, in your in your first year, you have experienced so many different aspects of Mercy Ships getting to be on both ships, getting to be in multiple countries, probably sailing more than most people actually sail when they’re serving on board. So, what a remarkable first year for you. Why don’t you take us back to the beginning — you’ve been a teacher in the United States for many years, and for most people entering into this chapter of life, they would be looking at retirement. But you and your wife decided not to retire, but to make a career move later in life. So why don’t you tell us why you chose to do that. And why Mercy Ships?
Well, I should mention that our daughter Beth has been on the ship. And both my wife and my daughter have done interviews with you. So, some of your listeners may know are the name Kirchner. So, our daughter in 2016 joined Mercy Ships as a kindergarten teacher in Benin, and she has served with the Africa Mercy. And then she did the same thing that we did this year of joining with the Global Mercy. So really, that was one of the delights for us was the opportunity to, to serve with our daughter and for my wife and I to get to serve together. We are getting toward the end of our career and after many years of teaching in California, I taught at the secondary level teaching high school biology and advanced placement, Biology and Environmental Science, we decided to do something different.
We’ve been involved with missions for many, many years, we have always taken our daughters on mission trips, and it was a delight for us that our daughter chose to go on Mercy Ships. And, you know, for the last, whatever it is now, six years, we’ve been hearing stories about Beth’s experience on the mercy ship, and how much she loves it. Our youngest daughter just graduated from college, and so we were paying college tuition bills, and we reached the point where we’re no longer doing that and we don’t have a mortgage. And financially we are a little more freed up as most people are at our age. So, we had an empty nest, we have three daughters, and they are adult daughters now, and we do have three grandchildren, so that’s a consideration. But, you know, we have been interested in missions for a long time. Also, I come from a family, where my parents were missionaries. My dad was a dentist while I was growing up and when I left for college, I’m the youngest of five children, my father sold his practice, and my parents became missionaries. And for the next forty years, until they were 90 years old, they traveled the world, as missionary evangelists. So, I have that, that role model. So, for me, it’s a very normal idea. To think of, you know, when you reach a point that you have a little more freedom, let’s use it to serve the Lord. And so, we love Mercy Ships, but I would just mention to your listeners, however you serve the Lord — I just think it’s a tremendous opportunity as people get closer to retirement age.
And you could think in terms of, well, let’s do a little more work in the garden or work on my golf game or something like that. Or you could say, hey, like what I have already said, I don’t think of myself as retirement age, I get a little insulted if someone says, Have you retired? Do I look like I’m old enough to retire? I do not think of myself that way. So I’ve got a lot of miles to go and a lot to offer. You know, I’ve had a lot of experiences and I can use those to mentor students. I am not really looking to work on my golf game, or which I don’t really have one, or, you know, we love traveling, this is a great way to travel. We enjoy serving, we enjoy traveling, and working on the mercy ship has been a great experience.
Well, you mentioned you’re coming to this with a lot of experience, right? Not all of our teachers are like that, but it’s wonderful that there are a lot of ages, and stages of life represented on board. You mentioned coming with a lot of experience in teaching high school and at the university level, how are you using all of your experience to enhance the education of the students on board?
Well, I mentioned that I’ve been teaching a variety of things. I have a PhD in Plant and Soil Science, so when I talk to my students about biology, I almost could do that in my sleep, I have taught biology so many times now. But part of what the ship needs among its teachers is being able to work with a variety of students. And so, for the first time in my life, I was teaching middle school, as well as I taught students from sixth grade, up till 10th grade. And that’s only because we didn’t have any juniors or seniors on the ship this year. So, under normal circumstances, I would be teaching sixth through 12th grade. And we teach whatever needs to be taught depending on what the students need.
So, I was teaching earth science, I was teaching life science, I was teaching biology. Our science curriculum includes chemistry and physics, and physical science for the middle school students. And then I mentioned, we also needed for me to be teaching history for a period of time. And part of my experience is that my wife and I homeschooled our daughters, and we are passionate about history, and how God has worked through history. As a matter of fact, when we were homeschooling our daughters for a period of time, we lived at the home of Tennessee’s first governor and my family would dress up in colonial outfits and reenact 1796 when Tennessee became a state.
And so, you know, we have that history background as well. And this next year, they’re going to need for me to teach geography, which is part of the social studies curriculum. And part of my experience has been I’ve traveled the world I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica, and I hope to get there eventually. But you know, all of these things contribute to what I can share with students, and as students are preparing, I would say our school is certainly a college preparatory school, I am very interested in the whole process of preparing them for college.
And I would say one of the things that I’ve been able to offer them is a breadth of experiences. And so, in addition to being a teacher, I’ve worked as a research scientist, many times this year, the topic of scientific research came up, and I can share with them the experience I’ve had, working in Florida and working in Tennessee, what it’s like to be a research scientist.
And so even for a sixth grader, or a seventh grader, I think it’s really beneficial for them to hear what it is actually like to be a scientist and how you have to think, as a scientist. Also, something I feel like I offer is that I, in my elderly state, I have many years of friends. And so, for example, this year, when we were talking about archaeology in my history classes, I called a good friend of mine who’s an archaeologist that I have known for over 40 years. And we had her speak to several of our classes about archaeology, which I can speak to a little bit, but I have this connection. I think that’s one of the things that you have, as you get older is you have lots and lots of connections.
And so, in earth science, when we talked about earthquakes, we had a conversation with my brother who’s a civil engineer. I think that’s something that I can offer is I have lots and lots of contacts. A good friend that we’ve known for over 40 years is a retired math teacher, and we called her and got her to come and serve on the ship. So, the Lord worked in her life for her to come for six months and teach math on the Global Mercy with us. I suppose an advantage of being older is I just have lots of experiences and I can share with the students. Lots of stories I can tell them. So yeah, I feel like those are some things that I’ve been able to offer them, in addition to, you know, the science that I know about.
I think it’s so wonderful that the Academy provides such an incredible education for the children on board. And how fun to have some of these seasoned teachers like yourself who bring so much experience, so many stories and connections, as you’ve mentioned, it really does add a unique aspect to the education on board that you really don’t find anywhere else in the world.
I appreciate though, we have a couple teachers who are just out of college. This is the first-time teaching and I have loved watching their energy, and the way they interact with the students. You know, I can’t get down on the ground, as I said, I’m almost 60 years old, and I’m not going to play tag very long. We have our physical ed teacher who is 25 years old, and she gets on the ground, and she chases them around. I think it’s part of the body of Christ, that in the academy, Kayla and I can work together, and she can chase them and I can tell them about my experiences.
Well, you are a man of many talents, much experience many interests. What are you bringing to the community outside of the classroom?
Yeah, that’s something that Caroline and I have thought a lot about. We love the community on the ship. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the main reasons that we chose to work on Mercy Ships. I would say, some of the things that we do for the community is just to be yourself and share what you love. And so, since I was the history teacher, one of the things that I did — I love movies and I set up every week a history Movie Night, where I would show a movie that had some historical significance, for example, Apollo 13 or Hidden Figures and then for 15 or 20 minutes afterwards we’d discuss the movie. We tried to have it not just be American stories.
We showed The King’s Speech, we showed British movies, we showed movies dealing with African stories, you know, we tried to make it appealing to all of the crew. And I would say one of the interesting things there is to have a discussion afterwards. For example, we watched a movie that deals with the British Parliament, and I could share what I know, but then our British crew can tell their perspective. And that does build community, to listen to one another and to learn together. There’s so much that I think all of us learn from each other, particularly if you come with the attitude of respect, and learning from one another. So that was a fun experience that we did.
Well, you mentioned learning and living on a ship is a unique experience. I know you’ve only lived on a ship for a year now, but what is something you have learned living on a ship?
Well, you certainly learn to tie everything down for you sail! Because things do move back and forth. I’ve learned how limited my American perspective is. As I said, I’ve traveled the world, so I feel like I have a pretty broad perspective. But there are a lot of things that are unique to America. I knew about the metric system because I’m a scientist. I’ve worked with grams and meters and nanometers, and I have dealt with microbiology.
So, a lot of times as I’m teaching, if I’m tempted to say miles or miles per hour or something like that, I’m constantly having to switch to metric — I knew about that one. But then there are many, many other things that only Americans do that I wasn’t as aware of. One of them is using military time. But you know, to talk about 7pm, and most of the world 7 pm is 1900. And I had to adjust. I didn’t realize that, that is really a American thing. Or at least that’s the impression I got that most other countries don’t use am and pm. Or the way we write our date — if it’s August, you write eight first.
That’s not the case in most of the world. I don’t want to just make it sound like Americans do things differently. Every culture, every country has their unique things. And it is helpful to make friends and learn in a particular situation like this, where we respect one another. We are enjoying our time together, and we’re learning from each other. So, as I said, we would often sit and have meals with people from other parts of the world. And a lot of times, it’s a learning experience.
Well, your Mercy Ships journey is not over yet. But in your first year, how have you been impacted? Personally, how have you changed because you volunteered?
Well, I would say, I’ve grown some in humility, which is always a good thing. I’ve grown in flexibility. That’s one of the things I would say we need on Mercy Ships, particularly during a COVID season, that you can’t really say, “Well, this is what I’m going to do, and this is when it’s going to happen.” We have to be somewhat flexible. And when, when things don’t go the way we plan, we know who is in charge. My mom says this expression where she says — we don’t know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future. And so, we walked by faith trust the Lord is guiding us. And we also recognize that our plans are not necessarily the best. And we trust that God is going to guide us.
And so, you mentioned, our time on Mercy Ships is not done, I couldn’t tell you how long our time on Mercy Ships is going to be. I do like to plan, I’m the kind of person who likes to have things set and I know that this is going to happen, and this particular date, and I want to all of that to be planned. But I’ve learned to be a little more flexible about that and say, you know, we know we’re going get there, eventually. I was expecting that working with Mercy Ships, you expect that you’re going to be in Africa. This year, we were in the Canary Islands and Belgium and the Netherlands, back in the Canary Islands, and finally, to Senegal. But that’s not my decision.
And I trust the people who are making those decisions, I ultimately trust the Lord who guides our steps, and I pray guides those who are making these decisions. So, you know, I think it’s just a good thing, as a follower of Christ, to be flexible and to be humble and to trust that God is sovereign. I taught Old Testament to some of my students this year and that was something that kept coming up over and over again, how we see the Lord’s sovereignty, how God is at work, behind the scenes, working in ways that people never expect, or would never have imagined, working for the best working for the good. And we can trust him.
Great things to learn in life, for sure. I’m confident that there are people listening to this right now who are contemplating going to serve, whether it be with Mercy Ships or a different organization, what would your encouragement be to someone who’s considering going and serving with Mercy Ships?
Well, you mentioned people can serve in all sorts of ways. So, I will say this for people considering Mercy Ships, but also for people who are looking to do something maybe a little unconventional. You know, sometimes, when we follow the Lord, we do things that are a little bit different than what the rest of the world expects. So, I would certainly say, use the gifts that God has given you. And, you know, I spoke earlier to those who are close to retirement, like myself, but I would also speak to those who are young, or maybe have someone in their family who is young who could perhaps consider serving for a year. When I went to college, it was just the next step. I finished high school, what’s the next thing you do? You go to college. But for my youngest daughter, when she finished high school, she worked with Youth with A Mission for five months, and then came on the mercy ship. And you know, what a great experience for an 18-year-old?
And so I wish that I had even thought in those terms. I think a lot of times we do what’s expected of us. And so, I would encourage your listeners to think, okay, not necessarily what is expected of me, but how was God leading me? And so, if they’re hearing this and thinking, well, that’s something that I could perhaps do, someone who is 18, why do you have to finish college? Or maybe you’re not looking at college, but just thinking, where’s the Lord leading me next? What a great experience to come for a period of time and work on the mercy ship, or whatever ministry you’re considering. Mercy Ships is one that we are passionate about, but God is using all sorts of people to serve throughout the world. I would encourage your listeners, take a look at mercyships.org and see what the needs are.
There are so many needs, and particularly with having a new ship, we have that many more positions to fill. And I would also like your listeners to know how fun it can be. You know, we’ve had a great experience, we’ve made great friends and gotten to serve the Lord. And this has just been a lot of fun and a great a great experience for us as a couple.
Well, Mike, as we wrap up our time together, as I mentioned, you are just starting a new school year. What are you most looking forward to in this new school year? And what are you hoping for your students?
This year will be a unique experience. But I’ve mentioned before, I can teach biology in my sleep, but I’m having to teach some things that I’m having to learn just before I teach it to the students. I know the subject of earth science, for example, but I’m having to review it. And this year, it’s geography, I’m teaching geography — my wife has a degree in geography, so I can learn some things from her about this. But I’m very excited about teaching geography. One of the things I’m looking forward to with this is I want my students to share my love for the world. And I want them to get God’s eyes for the world, to love people from different cultures the way that God does and have his heart for the whole world. And so, I’m looking forward to having, I don’t know what we’re going to call them yet, but nation nights. So, for example, we have a family from Brazil, I’m going to ask them to put on Brazil night, and I’m thinking to do this once a month.
I feel like we do things in school that the rest of the ship can benefit from. So, I’m not planning on just having it for the students, I want the other people on the ship to learn about Brazil. And then the next month, maybe it’ll be New Zealand. And the next month, maybe it’ll be Ghana. I’m kind of thinking of this as once a month. So, teaching geography, I want them to learn physical geography, the capital of Guinea, but I also want them to learn about the people and to learn to love those people and taste the food. When I’m teaching about Northern Europe, I’m not just teaching dry textbook material, I actually have students from Northern Europe, and families from Northern Europe that I can have come into class or do one of these evenings where we can learn some of the games, we can learn some of the songs and the dances, and some of the history and put flesh on it.
So, I’m very excited about teaching geography this year. And I’m hoping to have like a geography bee where I can have the students compete. But then I want to have the students compete against the adults. I love trivia, and I love these kinds of contests. And so, once the students learn this material, I’m going to put them up against the rest of the ship. And I know the kids are going to win. But I’m looking forward to that aspect of geography. And, you know, one of the things I’m particularly excited about is I know that God loves the whole world. And I want the students to learn to pray for the different parts of the world and be excited about experiencing different cultures and hopefully learn to love God’s world.
I so appreciate your passion and your enthusiasm for learning and for teaching, and especially through a biblical worldview — really seeing the world the way God does and how you’re really empowering your students to do the same and other crew members. I’m so grateful that you and your family said yes to go and serve with Mercy Ships. I know that you are an asset not only to the academy, but to the crew. And I’m so grateful that you would take the time to share with us a little bit about your journey thus far. So, thank you so much for sharing with us and we wish you all the best in this new school year.
Thank you so much Raeanne.
If Mike has sparked your interest, go check out opportunities to volunteer with Mercy Ships at mercyships.org/volunteer. Next week we’re staying in the classroom as we continue to celebrate the new school year. Teacher Susan Waldron will be sharing with us her experience of teaching junior high and high school students on board the Africa Mercy. Come back next week to be encouraged and inspired.