At their rallies they chant and shout defiantly. On their picket lines, when television film crews roll, they often raise clenched fists.
But despite these signs of militance during the current strike, Washington's teachers, according to official school records, are a heavily middle-class, middle-aged group -- 81 percent women, 91 percent black, 45 percent suburbanites, with an average income of $20,965 for the current school year.
Half of the teachers, according to school system tabulations, are over age 40. Half worked for the city's public schools for more than 13 years. About 45 percent have master's degrees. About 80 percent are members of the Washington Teachers' Union.
"We're not people who live from paycheck to paycheck. We just didn't walk into these schools the other day," said a teacher in her "early 40s" at a union rally yesterday. "I think we've gotten somewhere in a pretty tough world, you know. But what's going to happen if they tear down this union? What's going to happen to us then?"
The teachers' strike, which centers on nonmoney issues such as work rules and the relative authority of the school board and the union, has crippled the city school system for nine school days.
Little progress was reported toward ending the walkout, even though both sides have made efforts at compromise.
After negotiations adjourned at 1:15 a.m. yesterday, union president William Simons said he was "disappointed" but still hoped an interim agreement could be reached over the weekend, allowing teachers to return to their classes on Monday.
No new talks were held yesterday. Federal mediators scheduled another negotiating session for this afternoon.
Last night Simons walked out of a television studio before the taping of WTTG's "Black Reflections" when he discovered that a nonstriking teacher also would appear on the program.
Yesterday was the teachers' first payday since the labot dispute began and union officials said groups of strikers walked into all of the city's 190 schools to pick up paychecks from principals.
The pay was for work performed during the second half of February -- before the strike started -- and totaled $77 million, according to the school system's finance office, with about 6,600 teachers receiving checks.
Inside the pay envelopes were copies of a temporary restraining order against the walkout issued March 5 by D.C. Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler. Even though teachers were required to sign statements that they had received the court order, Simons said the statements "really don't make any difference" because the order "does not have any effect on individual (union) members."
The checks were the first from which semimonthly dues of $7.85 were not deducted from each union member's pay. It was the school board's decision to cancel the dues checkoff that precipitated the walkout.
The checkoff had brought the union about $70,000 a month, which it is now trying to collect from members individually.
"Money is not important. Money is not of the utmost importance," said Althea Watts, a teacher at Turner Elementary School in Anacostia whom Simons introduced at yesterday's rally.
"What we are doing, that's what's important," Watts declared as the audience of about 1,200 applauded.
The rally was held at the Greater New Hope Baptist Church, 8th and I streets NW.
As they left the church, several teachers warmly defended their relatively high pay -- which averages more than that in any local suburban school system. (Arlington is second with an average of $19,548.)
"The salaries still aren't terrific in terms of the preparation that the teacher has to make," said one elementary teacher. "Compare what we get to the other professions -- to lawyers and doctors and engineers. The engineers get this money just for walking out of college.
"Things are a lot better for teachers than they used to be," she said. "But we're still the lowest-paid profession I can think of."
Salaries are not an issue in the strike -- they are set independently of the school board by Washington's mayor and city countil -- but money has become an important factor in its unfolding.
At first several school board members said they thought the walkout would be brief because of financial pressures on teachers. But so far the strike has shown no major sign of faltering. School officials said 53 percent of teachers were away from work yesterday. The union estimated that 72 percent were out.
"Teachers are sort of conservative with their money," said one woman on the picket line at Lincoln Junior High School, 16th and irving streets NW. "We're earning enough now that we've saved something."
She added that most of the women teachers are married and their husband's earnings cushion the financial loss during the strike. The teachers' union pays no strike benefits.
The proportion of women among Washington's teachers -- 81 percent -- is substantially higher than the 67 percent reported for all American teachers by the National Education Association.
The fact that Washingtonhs teachers are older than average -- six years above the nationwide figure of 34 -- is explained mainly, school officials said, by the shrinking size of the system's work force.
As enrollment has dwindled, the number of District teachers has dropped by about 10 percent since 1974. Few young teachers have been hired.
Partly because of new rules for recertification, the proportion of the District teachers having substantial post graduate education -- a master's degree, equivalent courses, or a doctorate -- has risen from 25 percent in 1970 to 63 percent last fall. Nationally, only 37.5 percent of teachers had a similar amount of training in 1976, the most recent year for which figures are available.
Their age and advanced training, not just their pay scale, help account for the high average salary of Washington's teachers.
Half of them have at least 13 years experience, which places them almost at the top of the salary scale or at the top if they have taught 15 years -- $20,582 for those with a bachelor's degree, $25,789 with a doctorate.
According to school system payroll records, 55 percent of District teachers live within the city, 42 percent in Marland and 3 percent in Virginia.
Blacks account for 91 percent of the District's teachers -- up from 79 percent a decade ago. Black students make up 95 percent of the city's public school enrollment.
There are noracial issues involved in the strike, but the style of black church meetings is evident in union rallies and rhetoric. Simons often likens the treatment of teachers by the school board to slavery.
Many of the teachers involved compare the strike to civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.
When asked why the union was defying Judge Kessler's no-strike restraining order, one teacher said:
"There comes a time when the law has to be challenged to bring about change. Naturally, it's a judge's duty to uphold the law. But if nobody disobeyed it, we wouldn't have any civil rights today."