When Jan Christian, sales representative for a New Jersey chemical company, talked to mathematics teachers at nearby Ramsey High School about her interest in teaching, she said they looked at her as if she were crazy.

Christian, 30, hopes to become one of the first teachers certified under New Jersey's new program that allows qualified persons to earn teaching credentials largely through on-the-job training -- in her case, in front of the classroom.

Even as many educators express concern that teachers are being lost to jobs that offer higher pay and more prestige, New Jersey's program has attracted lawyers, accountants, artists, journalists, a band director and a telecommunications marketing official who say they want to become public school teacahers.

Since January, more than 560 persons have applied for the program, according to Celeste Rorro, director of teachers certification and academic credentials in the state education department. "The response has been tremendous," she said.

Christian, who has a chemical engineering degree adn almsot nine years of work experience, said he rsalary "will drop in half" if she switches to teaching. Because engineering and technical marketing has not been as satisfying as she expected, Christian said she "decided being happy in my work is worth more than salary."

Steven Schaffer of Fanwood, N.H., who has been practicing law for nine years, said he found the legal trade "aggravating" and applied for teaching certification because h is interested in coaching sports. "I don't think you need an education degere to be a good teacher," he said.

The alternate route to certification, as the program is called, is a way into classrooms for thoselacking a traditional education degree. Proponents, including Republican Gov. Thomas Ken, have said they hope to attract more and better teachers.

Half of the state's 73,500 teachers are expected to retire or leave for other jobs over the next decade," said Rorro, also citing a "precipitous decline" over the last 10 yeasr in the quality of the teaching force.

The first 500 program applicants have earned 20 doctorate and 81 masters degrees, Rorro said, adding that the initial belief that the program would attract many older, retired person is "absolutely not so."

Paul Contardi, 43, of Metuchin, said he hopes to use his PhD in biology as a ticket to teaching mathematics or science. Because of a scarcity of full-time university-level jobs. Contardi has been offered only temporary positions since he earned his degree several years ago.

Contardi, who taught while in graduate school and has been a substitute teacher for several months in junior highs and high schools, said that, if he had to obtain an education degree in order to gain a permanent teaching job, "i don't know if I would do it."

Compensating for what the newcomers lack in formal teacher training will be their maturity, experience in a specific field and "a real desire to be a teacher," said Tenafly School District Superintendent Harry Jaroslaw, who chaired the state commission that created the program.

Applicants must have a bachelor's degree and must pass the National TEachers Examination in a subject, or in a general knowledge for those interested in teaching elementary grades. Armed with provisional state certification, they can then apply for teaching jobs.

Once on the job, provisional teachers must take 200 hours of formal teaching instruction, offered through the state educaiton department or local school districts, said Ellen Schechter, director of New jersey's teacher education office.

The newcomers are to be closely supervised and will work with an experienced "mentor" teacher. They are expected to be fully certified to teach in New jersey's public schools after a year on the job.

Peter Zeigler, 25, of Trenton said he sees the alternate route as an "attractive option" after spending several frustrating years in the working world. He has held several security and law enforcement jobs since earning a college degree in English and political science.

"Until now, you had to have an education curriculum, take education courses and what not," to become a teacher, Ziegler said. "As lot of people were left out by that structure."

The alternate route is the nation's only program that grants full teaching certification to those without education degrees, Schechter said. Although many states provide emergency or temporary certification to handle teacher shortages, she called these programs "substandard."

New Jersey's emergency certification program was eliminated when the alternate route was approved last fall. Schechter said that there were "zippo standards" for emergency certification and that some teachers had no college degrees.

Jaroslaw said many of his fellow superintendents "are favorably inclined" about the new program but noted that hiring provisional teachers will require extra work, and perhaps funding, by school districts, some of which may not want to become involved.

Jaroslaw is leading a consortium of nine school districts near Tenafly that plans to hire as many as 10 provisional teachers for next fall.

Among the program's critics is Janice Weaver, dean of the state's largest teacher education program, the School of Professional Studies at Glassboro State College.

Weaver said the disregard for formal teacher training indicates that teachers do not receive "the same kind of respect for specialized knowledge" as do plumbers.

But Henry Drewry, director of a small teacher-preparation program at Princeton University, said there is room for both avenues to certification, noting that parochial and other private schools usually do not require state certification.

Janis Martinson taught last sumer at a private school and is to graduate from Princeton this spring. She recalls being discouraged "by everyone I talke dto" from going into teaching.

Martinson said she is not worried about teaching without a degree and plans to teach at private shcool is she cannot go through the state's alternate program.

"I think I'm going to bring a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and knowledge of my subject to the classroom," she said. "I think you learn more about being a teacher in the classroom than [from lessons] in a book."