Virginia school teachers, worried that the public thinks they care more about money than children, have begun a three-year, $390,000 advertising campaign to improve their image.

With television commercials, magazine ads, leaflets and bumper stickers, the 44,000-member Virginia Education Association has begun one of the most expensive advertising campaigns ever undertaken by a statewide teach organization. The idea is to make the public think of teachers as warm and compassionate individuals.

"Would you turn your child over to a stranger for 6 hours tomorrow?" asks a magazine ad in the VEA's "We Teach the Children" project.

Another ad, being shown on prime-time television throughout the state, features guitar music and shouts of joyful children cavorting in a carpeted classroom. Both ads urge parents to meet their childrens' teachers and pick up a leaflet listing 77 suggestions on how they can help their children do better in school.

Even though the image-building is deliberately low-key, the reasons behind it -- and the $3 a year special assessment all VEA members must pay -- are far from inconsequential.

"Teachers feel the public image of them is changing from someone who cares about children to someone who cares only about salaries," said Barby Halstead, a service representative for the Fairfax Education Association, VEA's largest chapter. "That's not true," she added. "And the teachers are willing to vote the (extra) dues do the public will know this."

"There's a great feeling among teachers that they are underrated for the things they do," said Joseph W. Bland Jr., VEA's communications director who planned and managed the advertising campaign. "There's a good bit of misunderstanding (among the public). They dump all the problems at the school house door and then they complain to us about declining test scores . . . It's very frustrating to teach in school these days, and teachers want some support."

During the past three years, six other state affiliates of the National Education Association, including Maryland's, have mounted similar advertising campaigns. But according to NEA public relations officials, the drive in Virginia is the most expensive per member in the country.

The television commercials, which were produced in Richmond, have been shown on 16 stations across the state in a two-week "blitz" that started Sept. 4 and ends today.

To reach Northern Virginia, the spots have been shown on Washington television stations 27 times during such staples as "The Waltons," "60 Minutes," and "The CBS Evening News". The cost of air time in Washington has ranged up to $4,000 for each 30-second spot, Bland said. That is about five times more than any other TV market in Virginia.

The largest magazine ad, spread over two pages, is running in all copies of Time Magazine distributed in Virginia next week.

VEA has printed 250,000 leaflets and 60,000 bumper stickers. The stickers are black with white lettering and a heart-shaped red apple, somewhat like the "Virginia is for lovers" signs distributed by the state travel service. Bland said any similarity is coincidental.

"All this isn't going to make us a Burger King or McDonald's in terms of advertising," Bland said. "But we want to have an impact."

Even though the ads are nonpolitical and addressed specifically to parents, Bland said they might have one politically desirable side-effect for VEA.

"The campaign itself -- on major media -- which the politicians, the parents and the public know is expensive, has got to build respect for the VEA as an organization," Bland told the group's state convention before it approved the advertising campaign last April.

"Regardless of the message," he continued, "the fact that we can operate on such a level, achieve such impact, must add respect for our capabilities."

Last year the Maryland State Teachers Association spent $38,000 on its advertising campagin, including television commercials. This year the television ads have been dropped, "They're too expensive," said executive director Harvey Zorbaugh. But the group is paying for radio spots, along with billboards and bumper stickers which declare: "If you can read this, thank your teacher."