MARYLAND's 41,000 public school teachers, while under pressure from parents and school boards to produce better-educated students, are confronting increasingly diverse school populations and more children hampered with personal problems.

Meanwhile, state and county officials are seeking to increase the number of minority teachers. The NAACP, however, alleges that the National Teachers Examination for certification -- adopted in Maryland several years ago -- is keeping many minority candidates out of the profession. Some educators also criticize a recent state school board plan to relieve general teacher shortages by relaxing some certification standards.

"The problems are . . . more complex than 10 years ago," said Dale Scannell, dean of the College of Education at the University of Maryland. "There are more poor children, more families where both parents are working, there's the drug problem."

"The expectations of what parents want schools to do are higher than they were 10 or 15 years ago," said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association. "Teachers feel the pressure to achieve results with students."

Responses to these challenges include new teaching approaches, innovative in-service teacher training programs, and increasing teacher demands for more decision-making power in their individual schools. In addition, State School Superintendent Joseph L. Shilling recently proposed extending the school year from 180 days to 200 days, which would make it the nation's longest. Initial estimates say the move would cost more than $53 million.

Simon said he feels the main issue of concern to Maryland teachers is a future dearth of funds. "Needs are increasing, but funding is not keeping up with the needs," he said, citing a projected 3,000-5,000-student-a-year increase in Montgomery County schools, which will require new school construction.

Nonetheless, the National Education Association (NEA) ranks Maryland eighth in the nation for what it spends to educate each public school child annually -- $5,887 -- and Maryland's teachers are the nation's fifth highest-paid, with an average salary of $36,601.

But though Maryland's teachers aren't doing badly in comparative salary terms, there are other reasons why, as one teacher put it, "people aren't exactly lusting to get into the profession." In rural Cecil County, far beyond the Beltway in Maryland's northeast corner, for example, a recent report says assaults against teachers have quadrupled since 1986.

"The students have changed, they're not so motivated," said Barbara Edwards, 55, a teacher at Cecil's Elkton High School for 16 years. She blames drugs, alcohol and lack of parental involvement -- such as help with homework -- for the current situation. There's "not very much respect for teachers as a group anymore. They're {regarded as} just another public employee."

"We're a more socio-economically diverse student population than we were," says Simon of Montgomery County, where soaring numbers of Hispanic and Asian students -- and economically poorer children -- are changing the demographic face of once largely white and middle-class classrooms. "Teachers have to be more sophisticated about teaching strategies, not assume that everybody learns the same way and not assume everybody's future involves college."

Suburban teachers are also encountering more children with a wide -- and demanding -- range of emotional needs.

In confronting such challenges, Maryland's teachers are also trying new learning approaches. The teaching of creative writing, for instance, now emphasizes the flow of thoughts rather than details like spelling.

"Cooperative learning" between children in reading and other subjects is gaining on the time-honored command to Do Your Own Work. In reading, for instance, children discuss what they've read with each other and together work out answers to teachers' questions.

Chris Coyle, a teacher in Prince George's County for 17 years who now teaches second grade at Greenbelt Center School, said that, years ago, "I would have said to them, 'Are you talking about the answers? You are? Do your own work!' but now I say, 'Are you talking about the answers? Good. I want you to talk about the answers.' "

The state's school districts are also using new kinds of in-service teacher-training. Ed Dawson, a 34-year veteran of the Allegany County schools, said the county is bringing in more outside consultants, professors and authors to offer teachers their expertise. Some systems are trying consciousness-raising approaches: Prince George's recently offered a seminar to help teachers understand the special needs and problems of black male students.

In Montgomery County there's an intensified trend to in-school programs and teachers helping each other out through their individual areas of expertise, said Stanley A. Fagen, direcot of the Department of Staff Development for the Montomery County Public Schools.

"Teachers need to rally together to help each other to survive," said Fagen. In some elementary schools, staffs get together a few days before school starts in late summer to define individual school needs. "They think about the heroes, the rituals, the norms of the school," said Fagen. "Ten years ago we were defining needs in a generic way for everyone {but} each school is different, each community is different."

Such emphasis reflects increasing experimentation with so-called "site-based" decision-making in which teachers address the needs of their individual schools -- with the principal acting as a kind of lead teacher -- and enjoy wide latitude in solving school problems.

Bob Moore, organizational specialist in intruction and professional development for the Maryland State Teachers Association, said he believes teacher autonomy is the most pressing issue for the state's teachers. "We need to get the control of the schools into the hands of the people doing the teaching," said Moore.

As Maryland's teachers seek more autonomy, the state's governor-appointed State Board of Education recently tried to open the profession's doors through a controversial plan for a "resident teacher's certificate," an alternative route to teacher certification.

"It's the feeling of the board that a lot of really qualified liberal arts graduates who want to enter teaching are finding it difficult . . . with the current requirements," said education department official Michael Cheatham. Under the proposed standards, college graduates who may not have taken the required education courses could instead take 90 clock hours of teacher-training sessions and -- if they meet certain other criteria -- be certified to teach at both primary and secondary public school levels.

Ideally, this would entice mid-career professionals and retirees to take up new careers in teaching and enrich the school system with able people. But this plan has angered teachers unions and some education professionals who say it amounts to lowering standards.

Dale Scannell, dean of the University of Maryland's college of education, opposes the plan, charging that there would be inadequate training in child psychology and development under its parameters.

"Those of us who are really upset are more concerned about the kids" than about the plan's possible effects on education colleges, he said.

Ironically, while the alternative certification plan attempts to open doors to teaching, affirmative action and social changes have opened other professional doors to the women and minorities who once filled teaching's ranks -- thus contributing to a shortage of prospective minority teachers. In Montgomery County nearly 16 percent of the student population is Hispanic and 11 percent Asian -- but less than 4 percent of its teachers fall into those categories. Similarly, fewer than one-third of Prince George's teachers are African-American -- but some 64 percent of its students are.

But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says the National Teachers Examination -- a certification requirement instituted in Maryland several years ago -- is hampering minority teacher recruitment.

The exam includes sections on general knowledge and on professional knowledge. Minorities do best on the professional knowledge section, but tend to fare poorly on the "general knowledge" section "because some students have not had humanities courses," said Beverly Cole, head of the NAACP's education committee. She said that minority candidates have experienced a "40 to 80 percent failure rate" with the exam, which the NAACP charges is "eliminating a large number of minority teachers."

"No one single paper and pencil test should be the deciding factor" on someone's ability to teach, said Cole. "We don't feel it's reflective of what is required for the teaching profession."

But O'Dell Jack, chairman of the Department of Education/Physical Education at Bowie State University -- where the exam is a graduation requirement -- calls the test "one of the cleanest exams around." All of Bowie's most recent class of teaching graduates -- about one-third black -- passed it. Jack attributes the shortage of minority teachers to the low socio-economic status of many blacks who "aren't lucky enough to get through the pipeline to afford the opportunity of college."

Though both Prince George's and Montgomery County school systems say they have met their most recent minority hiring goals, education professionals like Jack remain concerned.

Many of the state's non-white teachers will be retiring in the not-too-distant future. But African-American children -- who constitute about one-third of the state's public school population -- need the positive role models and identity figures teachers provide, said Jack, who added: "I would hope the situation's not getting worse, but some experts say it is."

Susan Gervasi is a Washington-area freelance writer.