FOR six years, Andrea Turkalo taught school in Tunisia and the Central African Republic, and chased elephant poachers in her spare time. Now she's teaching biology at the Samuel Gompers Vocational High School in the heart of the South Bronx. Like the rest of the school, her classroom - a converted woodworking shop - has a stripped-down quality, almost like a car left overnight on certain of the surrounding streets. Her students, in Fila high-tops and nylon jackets, tower over her.
But Andrea presides over a test review as though it's the most natural way in the world to spend the morning. The class is quiet and respectful, and not just because visitors are present. ``I can be pretty tough,'' says Andrea, who probably could hold class on an IRT local on the city subway if she had to. ``The toughest teachers are the ones they respect. Many of them are women.''
Andrea is one of 29 returned Peace Corps volunteers teaching in the New York City schools this year in a special program sponsored by Teachers College at Columbia University, with help from the Xerox Corporation and the Hebrew Technical Institute. The former volunteers - called Peace Corps fellows - teach science or math for two years at $20,000 a year and get their master's degree at Columbia at night, with generous financial aid.
In part, the program addresses a shortage of science and math teachers, which city school officials call ``desperate.'' But more broadly, it seeks to tap the experience and commitment of Peace Corps volunteers for problems closer to home. ``Peace Corps people view their jobs almost as a ministry,'' says Henry Fernandez, a former elementary school principal in Paterson, N.J., who coordinates the program at Columbia. ``The United States isn't taking advantage of their calling.''
This is Andrea's second year at Gompers, and she's thinking of staying for at least one more. Like many of her cohorts,she discovered in the Peace Corps that she genuinely enjoyed teaching. She recalls students in the Central African Republic who were so determined to escape life in the ``bush'' that they would memorize their textbooks under street lights at night. In New York, by contrast, the kids are ``TV addicts.''
Still, she is proud of her students - the way they overcome hardships and the insight they show in class. ``I get so tired hearing about `gifted' students,'' she says. ``We have `gifted' students right here. They just haven't been recognized.''
A common denominator in Africa and New York is lack of supplies. ``We are lucky at this school,'' she says, without irony. ``We have access to paper and a copying machine.''
A big fan of the Peace Corps fellows is Lottie Taylor, principal of the A. Philip Randolph High School, which is across the river in Harlem. Mrs. Taylor patrols the halls between classes, a combination drill sergeant and big sister. She offers pats of encouragement, faces down troublemakers, reminds the wayward to take off their Yankees' caps. All the troubles of the city are here, but most of Taylor's graduates make it to college. Taylor grabbed as many of the former volunteers as she could - seven of the 29. ``They had a demonstrated commitment to an ideal,'' she explains. ``They are willing to improvise.''
``We didn't have paper in the Peace Corps, either,'' says Mark Keegan, a science teacher with a fine sense of the absurd, addressing the shortage that seems to be on all the teachers' minds. ``We are a lot less limited here.'' Having lived in a foreign culture as a racial minority with a language not their own, Mr. Keegan and his colleagues have a feel for their students that others might lack. ``You realize the trouble kids have learning in a second language,'' he says.
The Peace Corps fellows bring a somewhat different perspective to the question of teachers' salaries as well. ``Lots of African teachers were never paid,'' says Don Chambers, who taught in Zaire. ``Their salaries were pilfered before they got to school.''
In Africa, the students were relatively docile. But in New York, ``you have to earn your respect,'' says Jennifer Knudson, a math teacher, with a hint of pride. And for all the difficulties, the teachers see a nobility in the enterprise. ``Americans really do try to educate everyone,'' Chambers says. ``There's no attempt at all in Africa to do that.''
Strange as it seems, former volunteers usually face barriers to teaching in this country. When he returned after six years in Malaysia, Chris Petersen says he felt he ``could have taught anywhere.'' But he couldn't get a public school job because, as he puts it, ``I didn't have the credentials.'' When Ms. Turkalo heard about the fellows program, she was working in an office in St. Louis and taking ``Mickey Mouse'' education courses at night to gain her teaching certificate. ``That's what turns people off teaching,'' she says. The former volunteers give high grades to their science and math courses at Columbia. But some find the ``teaching methods'' classes less helpful. ``They don't consider basic things like equipment - or lack of equipment,'' says William Sorensen, another chemistry teacher at A. Philip Randolph.
The fellows program provides an extra incentive to get the credentials. ``It could begin a whole thought process as to how others might utilize these skills,'' says Glegg Watson, manager of higher education/urban affairs for Xerox, speaking of the returning volunteers.
Xerox hasn't decided whether to fund the program again. But Mr. Fernandez has visions of expanding it to include other former volunteers with skills the city needs, such as health-care workers. And the Peace Corps itself is developing ways to link service overseas with careers back home. In the works are programs at several universities under which a volunteer could do a year of graduate work in, say, public health, and then use Peace Corps service abroad as field work toward a master's degree.
In part, such career-building is necessary to recruit the young people of the '80s. ``Often, the very first question is, `Will this help my career?''' says Mary McCarty, a recruiter in the Peace Corps' Boston office. But it also reflects a desire among officials and volunteers alike to bring the Peace Corps home. ``If you want to make lots of money and leave at 5, go to work in a bank,'' Keegan says. ``But if you want a job where you have raw material to work with, and how it turns out is up to you, this is the job.
``It's not as rough or as bad or as hopeless as people say.''