National Education Association president Mary Hatwood Futrell knows about schools today where they use the same textbooks she read as a student herself more than 25 years ago. She knows about the classrooms where teachers have to spend more time getting kids to be quiet than teaching them anything. And she knows there are some schools where students don't have desks, not to mention paper and pencils.

But the 44-year-old Futrell, who in July 1983 was elected to a two-year term as head of the 1.7-million member NEA, knows of other places as well. She's visited schools where teachers make classroom experiences exciting for their students, where teachers are more than baby sitters, where young people are learning.

And that, says Futrell, is why she is somewhat optimistic about the future of the teaching profession, a profession at times praised for its dedicated members and at others blamed for most of the ills faced by today's schools.

During an interview in her office last week, Futrell described herself as a realist. Until winning national office with the NEA, she taught business on the secondary level in Alexandria, where she and her teacher husband, Donald Futrell, live. Futrell says she wants to be reelected next year, serve as president until 1987 and then return to the classroom.

Right now, though, her professional home is a stylishly decorated but comfortable office in the NEA's headquarters here. The framed artwork, elegant couch and other touches seem far removed from the childhood she describes.

"I have to be honest and say that when I was growing up we were very poor," Futrell notes. Her mother, Josephine, sole support of Futrell and her three sisters, earned $15 a week as a domestic worker and cleaned banks and churches for extra money.

Under those circumstances, Futrell felt college would put too much of a financial burden on her family, so she took business classes in high school, hoping to become a secretary upon graduating.

Her high-school teachers encouraged her to apply for college, though, and she was accepted at Virginia State College. Scholarship money came through at the last minute, enabling Futrell to attend.

Still, she says, she knew what a sacrifice her mother and sisters were making and in the fall of 1959, she thought about not returning for a second year of school.

To ensure that she would, Futrell's mother made the train trip with her from their home in Lynchburg, Va., to the college in Petersburg. "When she did that, I knew that she was willing to make the sacrifice and I was determined to stay there and do well," Futrell says. "My mother was the driving force behind what I've accomplished and even today she's one of my biggest supporters."

Futrell also remembers the encouragement of her teachers, one reason she decided to go into teaching herself.

She says she realizes teachers don't get a lot of support these days, though she feels individual teachers are respected more than the profession as a whole.

"We hear a lot of people say teachers aren't as dedicated, that they're not very well prepared. Well, the statistics will show you we are much better prepared," Futrell says. "In former generations, teachers weren't required to have a high-school education, much less a college education, to teach. It's only been in the last 25 years that teachers were required to have a college education."

Teachers, she says, seem to get conflicting signals from the public. Some say older teachers are burned out, too rigid to be effective in the classroom, while younger teachers just out of college are viewed as unqualified and unable to cope with problems.

Neither extreme, Futrell feels, is completely true. Some teachers are poor and some are excellent but most, she asserts, fall in the category of "good."

What makes a good teacher "good"?

"First," says Futrell, "you have to know your subject area and I think you have to be articulate. You have to be able to impart the knowledge that you know to the children so that they understand and learn what you are talking about. You have to be caring.

"You have to like children and enjoy working with children, and I mean all kinds of children," from the well-kempt and behaved to the ones who are neglected or belligerent. "You get the ones that you virtually have to beg to learn. You have to pull it out of them, while other children are very eager to learn and to develop their minds."

Futrell says she feels good teachers are patient, understanding and firm as well as fair. Really good teachers put in time before and after school because they feel it necessary. And the best teachers, she feels, are those who are the toughest on their students and demand a lot from them.

On the days when teaching is not exciting, "You have to deal with those times when you have the day-to-day doldrums of trying to make it exciting and get them to understand what it is that you're talking about," Futrell says.

Futrell notes that the teaching profession has stabilized a bit in recent years but says there still are problems: Classrooms are overcrowded. Some teachers feel underappreciated while others feel they are under a state of siege in their classrooms.

And though the tide has stemmed somewhat, teachers still are leaving the profession for various reasons, ranging from what they perceive as a lack of respect to lower pay than many other professions.

In addition, the profession is aging. Futrell says most teachers are in their late 30s and early 40s and fewer young people are coming into the field. When Futrell graduated from college in 1962, about 20 percent of graduates were going into education. This past school year it was around 5 percent.

With fewer young people going into the profession and more youngsters from the baby boomlet needing to be educated in years to come, a teacher shortage is developing.

In some areas, such as math, science, computer technology and English, Futrell notes, a crunch already is being felt. In the 1983-'84 school year, for example, 18,000 math and science teachers left the teaching profession for various reasons, and "only 1,400 graduated from America's colleges and universities and entered the field."

Futrell said the projection is that 250,000 teachers will be needed by the end of this decade and between 350,000 and 500,000 teachers will be needed by the end of the 1990s.

How do you convince people to become teachers, given the low salaries and other problems, perceived or real?

First, Futrell says, teachers she's talked to in recent months are more optimistic. With a reemphasis on basic skills, schools seem to be getting better. Recent polls show the public more concerned about schools and even willing to spend the money to improve them.

Futrell says she recently talked to a young woman who asked why she should go into teaching.

"I told her that we need good teachers in the classroom. We need teachers who are academically talented, teachers who enjoy working with children. But I was very candid with her. I told her, 'You're not going to get a lot of appreciation for the individual things you do or from the class collectively and you won't get a lot of pay. As a matter of fact, some days you'll wonder if you can make it from one day to the next,' " Futrell said, recalling the conversation.

She continued, " 'But you will get a lot of personal satisfaction from working with those children and the satisfaction of knowing that you touched the lives of the children who will be the citizens of the future. If you value your own education and value the future of this country, then this is the profession for you.' "