Teachers Brian and Leslie Smith wanted to give their three children something special. Their desire to give their children “perspective” and a better understanding of the world and other cultures, has taken the family to South Korea and now Ethiopia, where the Smiths teach, but also learn.
Brian and Leslie Smith took different paths to PSU, where they met and eventually married. Before coming to PSU, Leslie earned a degree in journalism and public relations at Drake University. Brian, from Coffeyville, worked at a wide variety of jobs, worked and lived on the West Coast and performed in bands from the age of 15.
Both came to PSU to earn teaching degrees. Leslie graduated in 1994 and Brian in ’95 and they began their teaching careers in Gallup, N.M.
“We started in New Mexico because the job market was so tough here,” Leslie said. “But we always wanted to come back.”
After three years, the Smiths returned to the area, taking jobs in Lamar, Mo.
“We decided to come back and start a family,” Leslie said.
At Lamar, Leslie taught first grade and Brian taught elementary and sixth grade science.
The Smiths enjoyed teaching in Lamar, but as their family grew, they began thinking of ways to give their children the enriching international experience they both dreamed of.
“On a teacher’s salary, you can’t go that many places,” Brian said.
Then they began to research the possibilities of teaching overseas. At an international education job fair in Iowa, they learned that while American teachers are in high demand, the process of landing a job can be challenging.
Brian described the job fair, where administrators from international schools interviewed candidates in a rapid-fire environment as “like a demolition derby.”
“We learned a lot about ourselves in the process,” Leslie added.
Eventually, the Smiths were offered jobs at a school in Daegu, South Korea. Soon, the couple and their children, then 4, 6, and 10, boarded a plane for a new life South Korea.
The Smiths taught in Daegu for two years before accepting an offer from the International Community School of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a school with more than 800 students from 60 countries. There, they teach first and second grade.
Brian and Leslie said their international teaching experience has been everything they had hoped and more. But such dramatic cultural change comes with its own challenges.
“There are ups and downs,” Leslie said. “The transition was easier for the younger ones.”
She said it helped that despite living in a very different culture, much of their family life has remained constant.
“For us as a family, our lives didn’t change all that much,” Leslie said. “In many ways, our lives are very similar to the way they were here.”
In about a month, the Smiths will return to Ethiopia for the new school year. They won’t speculate about how many years they’ll continue to teach internationally.
“We’re continuously re-evaluating,” Leslie said.
But like their initial decision to teach internationally, their choices about where the future takes them will be guided by one principle.
“The kids are our first priority,” Brian said. “I told my son that when he goes to high school, I want him to have a complete high school experience.”
For others considering teaching in another country, the Smiths advise doing lots of research and evaluating their own personality.
“You have to be flexible. You have to be able to laugh at things,” Brian said.
“And you just need to accept that it’s not going to be like home,” Leslie added.
“The people we see who are unhappy about things are the ones who are continually comparing life to the way it was back home,” Brian said.
The Smiths’ presentation on teaching abroad is sponsored by the PSU Office of International Programs and Services and can count toward the IKE Certificate of International Knowledge and Experience for PSU students.