‘The Second-Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love’

By Ann Bradley — January 23, 1991 7 min read

Two years ago, Andrew Schirber was teaching science and mathematics as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small village in Liberia in West Africa. Now, half a world away in Brooklyn, N.Y., he is back in the classroom.

But unlike his colleagues at Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Mr. Schirber--who had an engineering background but no formal education training before entering teaching--can draw on the lessons from his stay in Africa, which he says are relevant to his daily experiences.

“Just being in a place where you’re so different--a whole different culture--you’re used to that,” he says. “There are an amazing number of cultures here, and the number of Caribbean students is enormous. Listening to them talk about the way they were brought up, it’s a lot like Africa, with the whole extended family.”

Mr. Schirber, 29, is one of dozens of returning Peace Corps volunteers who have taken advantage of a special master’s degree program at Teachers College, Columbia University, aimed at smoothing their paths into U.S. classrooms.

The two-year program, he says, was “tailor made” for his interests, although the combined workload of full-time teaching and graduate study has proved to be quite a challenge.

“Here at Columbia, we say [teaching] is the second-toughest job you’ll ever love,” Mr. Schirber says, referring to the Peace Corps’ slogan, “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”

The successful experiences of Mr. Schirber and others like him, say Peace Corps officials, have prompted the agency to expand the six-year-old program at Teachers College to a wide range of col6leges, universities, and school districtsacross the country.

The initiative marks the first time in its 29-year history that the Peace Corps has developed a specific program to fulfill one of its Congressional mandates: to have volunteers bring home their experiences from abroad and share them with their fellow citizens.

“This program is an opportunity to share their international perspective in the classroom,” says Barbara Zartman, deputy director of the Peace Corps, “and a way of harvesting the investment that taxpayers have made in the volunteers.”

“It’s too good an experience to leave at the end of two years,” Ms. Zartman adds.

Since last summer, the Peace Corps Fellows/u.s.a. program has signed agreements with 10 additional colleges and universities to offer master’s degree programs for returning volunteers. Six more agreements are expected to be signed shortly.

In turn, the universities make arrangements with nearby school districts to hire the returned volunteers to teach subjects in which there is a shortage of qualified teachers. The Peace Corps teachers begin their work in the schools immediately while studying at night and during the summer.

All former Peace Corps volunteers are eligible to apply for the program. Formal teaching experience abroad is not required by the Peace Corps, although some universities may decide to make teaching experience a prerequisite.

Dale Gilles, who is coordinating the university program for the agency, estimates that between 900 and 1,200 of the 3,000 volunteers who return to this country every year have formal teaching experience. There are 120,000 returned volunteers.

“Basically, every Peace Corps volunteer is in some way a teacher,” Mr. Gilles says.

For the Peace Corps, the only cost of the new program is the salaries of Mr. Gilles and his assistant.

University officials who have begun to screen applications for the programs--most of which will begin in the fall--say they prize the returned volunteers for their varied experiences, knowledge of foreign languages, multicultural perspectives, and ability to work under difficult conditions with few resources.

“Today, I’m sitting here with five letters on my desk, from Morocco, Honduras--all over the world,” says Rebecca Fewell, acting chairman of the department of education at Tulane University. “Their letters and experiences have excited me about their potential for meeting the needs in the national crisis in education in this country.”

In addition to Tulane and Teachers College, the Peace Corps has signed agreements with the University of Southern California, Florida International University, Georgia College, George Washington University, Ohio University, Texas A&M, the University of Southern Mississippi, Georgia State University, and Auburn University.

P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College, says he believes the agency was wise to give the program time to develop before expanding it. In its six years, Mr. Timpane notes, the program has proved to be “a terrific benefit for everybody concerned.”

“The New York City schools have been simply delighted to have these teachers in high-shortage areas,” the Teachers College president says. “In some very difficult schools, they have performed very ably. They are not easily dismayed.”

The program can also be a boon to districts where there is a growing need for teachers who speak such languages as Tagalog, which is spoken in the Philippines.

For example, Ms. Zartman notes, San Francisco State University is “moving with incredible speed” to put together a program for some of the Peace Corps volunteers who were pulled out of the Philippines last year for safety reasons.

The university “sees the inability to provide all the bilingual educators the schools need and the possibility of offering 10 Tagalog-speaking educators who understand and love the Philippine culture,” she says.

At the other participating universities, officials are working to construct the programs according to local needs.

George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for example, plans to admit 30 returning volunteers for a program of study that emphasizes working with at-risk students in both regular and special education, according to Juliana Taymans, an associate professor of special education. The District of Columbia schools, as well as the suburban Montgomery County and Prince George’s County systems in Maryland, have agreed to hire the returning volunteers who are admitted to the program, she adds.

The participating universities also are trying to raise money to provide tuition stipends or scholarships for the returning volunteers. At Tulane, which is beginning its program this month, the Coca-Cola Foundation will pay half the cost of the master’s program--or about $20,000--for the first six students admitted to the program, Ms. Fewell says.

In Ohio, the state legislature has committed $8,000 to support the program, which eventually will have about 15 students, says R. Keith Hillkirk, an assistant professor of education at Ohio University, who is coodinating the program there. In honor of the state’s former Governor, who served as the director of the Peace Corps during the Carter Administration, the first two Peace Corps fellows at the university will be called the Richard Celeste Fellows.

In contrast to the programs at Teachers College and San Francisco State, the Ohio University program is geared toward placel10ling returned volunteers in rural classrooms. Those admitted are expected towork with Appalachian children in several rural districts in southeastern Ohio, says Mr. Hillkirk, who adds that the university’s interest in the program was sparked when Paul D. Coverdell, the director of the Peace Corps, announced it during a meeting of the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools.

Despite the challenges of teaching in rural schools, says Mr. Hillkirk, who is himself a returned Peace Corps volunteer, the program has attracted the interest of many well-qualified candidates.

“We’re going to have some tough decisions to make, from the people who have applied,” he says.

Georgia College also has found that many returned volunteers are eager to teach at rural schools, to the amazement of some local administrators, according to Edward M. Wolpert, dean of the college’s school of education. Some of the rural Georgia superintendents who have been approached by Georgia College about hiring returned Peace Corps volunteers, he says, have been “somewhat surprised that there are people who would like to come out and teach in the ‘boonies.”’

But Mr. Wolpert adds that, unlike other teacher-applicants these administrators see, the returned Peace Corps volunteers are not daunted by the conditions they might find in rural Georgia.

“One of the things the superintendents will find nice about these people is that they are used to working under very primitive conditions, with limited books and supplies,” he says. “Things aren’t quite that bad here, but at least they will not have people demanding things they can’t get.”

The dean adds that he hopes another, more subtle, benefit of the program will be the effect the returned volunteers will have on their college classmates, the majority of whom are from the surrounding area.

“We’re hoping there will be a really good effect on our indigenous students by having [the returned Peace Corps volunteers] share their experiences,” Mr. Wolpert says.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as ‘The Second-Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love’