TeachingTraveling.com: We have a super unique teacher traveler today: American teacher Mike Welch, who travels the world gathering photos of people doing PowerKicKs, and who now is teaching as a professor in Bangkok, Thailand!
Mike, tell us a bit about your background.
Mike: My name is Mike Welch. I am originally from the Bay Area in California, about 25 miles outside San Francisco. I recently celebrated my 30th birthday here in Bangkok, Thailand making me a new member in the “Dirty Thirty” club.
I graduated from the University of San Diego with a degree in Business Administration and Finance. Going to school in San Diego, by the beach was amazing and was also where the travel bug first bit me! During my junior year in San Diego I enrolled in a study abroad program in Oxford, England.
This opportunity provided me with the eye-opening experience of seeing another part of the world. It showed me that there is much more out there; I just had to get out and see it to know it existed!
Upon returning to San Diego from abroad I committed to my studies and graduated a year later. I then set off to join “Corporate America.” I will mention it here that the thought of traveling never completely exited my mind. The itch was there, it was just a matter of time until it became too much and it HAD to be scratched.
Over my just-under-a-decade corporate career, the path led me to industries such as Aviation Leasing and Investment Management. Both offering interesting and fulfilling work in their own rights. One vital piece happened to be missing from both that I knew need to be incorporated… TRAVEL!
After much soul searching and exploring different opportunities, one option kept recurring that I could not seem to escape from. This option was to leave it all behind; set out and teach English as a Foreign Language and travel this great big world!
To make this experience truly unique I began creating a website to document my travel and teaching experiences. Slightly different from the traditional travelers blog, I intended my site to be a place for me to post photos of people who I met in different places I visited all doing their unique version of a PowerKicK for the camera.
The PowerKicK would be a way for people to show their exuberance for life, places they had traveled, and their individuality! The website is called www.GoPowerKick.com.
Given I was to be a neophyte English Teacher, I hooked up with a TEFL program in the south of Thailand on the island of Phuket. This was to be an intensive one-month course where I would get the basics for learning how to teach English as a foreign language as well as pick up some classroom management techniques. The month sailed by and I found myself a certified Teacher of English as a Foreign Language!
I had some time to fill before the semester began in Bangkok so I took and incredible month and a half trip over to Incredible India! I will have you note, many PowerKicKs were executed on Phuket and throughout India all of which are available for your viewing pleasure on the www.GoPowerkick.com website.
Currently, I now find myself as an English Lecturer at Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand. Assumption University has two campuses in Bangkok, one in the Hua Mak area (a more city type campus) and one in Bang Na. The campus in Bang Na is where the majority of the English and other areas of study are taught.
The idea behind this campus is a “University in the Park.” However, upon setting foot here you feel as if you are taken back to ancient Rome and its monolithic buildings. The architecture and the facilities are really quite unbelievable to see on a daily basis, although it does make for a very peaceful and pleasant working environment.
I teach English Academic, reading and writing, and English Conversation classes. This semester I have 8 sections that are a mixture of both. With an average of about 25 students per class this makes me responsible for trying to guide roughly 200 students to see “The Light!”
In class I have been sharing my website with my students and it has become a fantastic teaching aid in the classroom. Through exercises of developing creativity, thinking of unique ways to express themselves or pretending they are the owner of a website and working in groups developing products, the site has been advantageous for providing a mixture of real world scenarios for practicing English.
TT: Amazing! Tell us more about your teaching abroad.
M: Teaching at Assumption University has a major perk to it; this is a 3-month summer holiday. Oh, I forgot to mention it was a 3-month PAID summer holiday at that! This provides the English Teacher with time and money to take to the road and explore the beauties of South East Asia after an intense semester of teaching.
The salary of an English Teacher in Thailand will not afford you the luxury of staying at the Four Seasons or other such similar five star hotels throughout your travels. It will however provide you the funds to cover transportation, decent lodging, great options for food (eating local style is always best to really get a truly authentic experience), and of course souvenirs to take home as memories. This made for a perfect situation, allowing me to leave the “Reserved For Emergencies Fund” intact as I traveled; knowing travel expenses would be covered.
My first leg of the summer break was a trip to Vietnam. I flew into Hanoi with a group of three other Teacher friends to procure motorcycles and ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the country to Saigon in the south. We planned to give ourselves a one month time period to complete the roughly 2,100km trip. We hoped this would be enough time to allow for sightseeing, getting lost and of course breakdowns all staying within the 1 month VISA window.
The experience was unbelievable! From the initial purchase of our motorcycles in Hanoi, where a few members of our gang were learning to ride for the first time, all the way to that final ride into Saigon fighting the unimaginably chaotic traffic; the experiences and memories are too many to list!
A few memorable highlights were seeing the UNESCO Cave site in Phang Na, exploring the Vinh Moc Tunnels in Dong Ha and of course shooting an AK-47 at the Cu Chi tunnels just outside of Saigon. When it came to breakdowns, which occurred with increasing frequency as we added kilometers to our bikes, we soon realized that just about everyone in Vietnam is a mechanic.
Each of whom could staff a Formula 1 pit crew with their resourceful talents. Finally, I can’t forget to mention the many bowls of Pho and the welcomed surprise of baguette stands just about everywhere we went! (A thank you goes out to the French on this one!)
This trip sparked an appetite in me to seek out another type of cross-country motorcycle adventure. Kick-starting the motorcycle every morning and the freedom of the open road is an unparalleled feeling everyone should experience. I’m going back for seconds!
TT: Love it! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.
M: There have been many many many laughs throughout this experience, but there is one in recent memory that I found particularly funny. Every year in mid April Thailand celebrates its New Year festival, called Songkran.
The festivities take place all over Thailand and the country rings in the New Year with a 3-day water fight. It is quite an epic experience and one I suggest every come to see. My brother, cousin and some friend’s flew into town to experience this and we converged on the northern city of Chiang Mai to partake in the Songkran festivities.
I have to say it was quite an event and there were many laughs, many buckets of water poured on each other as well as times we thought we would never dry out!
One funny story from the trip, which did not even involve a bucket of water or water gun, was when we sat down at a restaurant to order a dish predominately found in Northern Thailand. The dish is called Khao Soi and is flavorful noodle soup with chicken and some crispy type noodles served on top, very delicious!
Thai, being a tonal language makes pronunciations difficult at times. I knew that if I did not get the pronunciation down I could potentially be ordering something completely different and had no idea of!
I cleared my throat and tried to order with my best Thai pronunciation. To my surprise the waitress looked at me, smiled and shook her head in approval. I thought “WOW, that was pretty easy!” Shortly after we were brought out 6 plates of steamed white rice. I thought to myself with a bit of confusion…”is this an appetizer because I know I did not order this.”
We put our heads together and thought of a few different scenarios as to why they were giving us this and only this. Our thoughts covered an array of scenarios. Maybe they went to get the soup at a neighboring restaurant to bring it over. Needless to say, we ate our rice and no soup showed up at our table. Hungry and wondering what happened to our order, I decided to give it one more shot.
So I ordered again. Again, I received that same smile and nod of approval from the waitress. I must have said it correct this time for sure. A couple of minutes later we again received 6 plates of steamed white rice. After racking my brain and all of us wondering what was happening and what was getting lost in translation; I had a moment of clarity! In Thai white rice is spelled Khao Suwai.
With such a similar spelling and a slight difference in the tone, I was obviously making a mistake in my pronunciation and in fact was ordering white rice… TWICE! I tucked my tail between my legs and explained this fiasco to the group. They all got a very good laugh at this and joked with me that after living here this long I didn’t even know how to order rice… what was I really doing with my time!
Anyhow, after this I made sure to get the pronunciation correct and later that night we enjoyed some amazing bowls of Khao Soi!
TT: Hilarious!! So how have your travels impacted you as a teacher and in your current career?
M: As my teaching contract has not yet finished, I find myself returning to the classroom after my most recent summer break.
Sometimes it can be easy to get frustrated with students when they are not “getting” the lessons, participating in class or otherwise just looking or acting like they do not want to be there. Many excuses flood the mind quickly as to the cause for this. Anything from maybe they are tired, they don’t want to learn, they are distracted by their Blackberry… you fill in the blank.
Traveling to the countries surrounding Thailand and not speaking the language of the host country, at times made me feel vulnerable. It is this feeling that put me in the shoes of my students. It was not until I met a proprietor who didn’t mind taking the time to explain with their hands, speak slowly or maybe meet me half way and try to speak broken English would these feelings subside.
After experiencing these situations and having these feelings it opened my eyes to the feelings that students can have when entering a classroom to learn English. Learning through my travels and sharing this similar feeling as my students, I think it can best describe as “Drinking Water Through a Fire Hose.” At first look it is intimidating, its going to be tough and its probably gonna hurt!
Taking this back to the classroom has helped me change my routine for the better. I like to think I am a patient person. I feel now that I am even more patient with students because I have walked a mile in their shoes. I now find myself speaking slower and repeating myself to make sure there is as little confusion as possible in the class while going over lessons. In doing this I hope that my students will feel more comfortable in the classroom to participate and hopefully learn more each day.
TT: So well-said. How have your travels impacted you as a person?
M: I think embedded in the definition of traveling something should be said to the effect of “it is an act that will impact your life from which you will undoubtedly come away changed and stronger.”
I know that as a person I definitely have felt and seen a change since leaving home one year ago. I feel stronger as a person, knowing that I have been challenged and come out on top, I have learned the lessons that sometimes should be easy the hard way and survived, I have failed and I have succeeded and I have found myself in situations where I know I was in way over my head and have walked away with the mission accomplished.
I have expanded my comfort zone more greatly than I could have ever imagined just a years ago. As a relatively rookie traveler I stepped out into the world in what first felt like a glass house; it had the possibility of shattering if a rock was thrown its way. While out in the world and traveling solo I had myself to rely on in just about every situation.
After a few initial successes I realized that when stones were hurled at my house the glass didn’t break, it stood there still standing. This gave me the strength to continually test myself, push myself and try new things that may once have seemed unthinkable and now seem like a walk in the park.
Traveling has also made me a much more culturally aware person. After making my way through South East Asia I have experienced many different cultures and people. These experiences have allowed me to understand and realize why some people do what they do, think what they think and act the way they act.
History shapes culture, which shapes the people, and people are who interact with travelers who experience the culture. Once you begin to learn where people come from and their history a level of acceptance and understanding can be reached that will make for a very rich experience; potentially making long-lasting friendships and memories.
Finally I know that my travels have made me cherish the little things I might otherwise take for granted back in my home country. Whenever the date will be that I arrive back home, I know that a hot shower, a comfortable bed and pillow, and a good home cooked meal will be luxuries I will enjoy with an entirely new sense of gratitude!!
TT: Yes! Yes! What advice do you have for other educators who are dreaming of travel?
M: JUST DO IT! Taking this leap has been the best experience of my life and I will never forget or regret it! I think that I can safely say the same for you! Follow what you feel in your gut. Conventional thought might be to get a job, work for security and towards retirement to eventually get out and travel the world. I say experience it now! Take each day a present and enjoy it!
Taking a year or two to see what is out there in this big world and doing it while you have youth on your side will be unforgettable. You may not be climbing the corporate ladder like your peers, however you will be exploring and learning about the world and yourself; making you a more well-rounded and interesting hire when, and if, you decide to return.
Finally, whether you chose to follow the teaching-traveling path or not will be a decision only you can make. Either direction you choose is perfectly ok. Whatever that chosen direction is I am here to encourage you to PowerKicK your life into a new gear!
Get out and push yourself. Push yourself to make yourself better in every way. Whether that’s being the best you can be at your job, traveling to somewhere you have always dreamed of going or being the best son/daughter, sibling, friend or companion you can. I encourage you to memorialize these milestones in your life with a PowerKicK! Trust me, you will NEVER FORGET IT!
Welcome to the PowerKicK Revolution!
TT: Mike, thanks so much for your amazing and unique perspective. Readers, what questions or comments do you have for our PowerKicKing teacher-traveler?
If you like Mike’s poses, check out my article on female poses in travel photography!