Why have teachers in Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax County left the classroom for such occupations as airline flight attendants, home builders, public relations and full-time Amway sales?

In a word -- salaries.

"I qualified for welfare assistance when I was teaching," recalls Jerry Zellner, a former Fairfax physics teacher who is now a consultant. "My wife didn't work and we have five kids. With my (teacher's) salary I was able to get dental and medical aid from the county."

When he left teaching after five years, for a job with a consulting firm, Zellner says his $12,000 a year teacher's salary immediately doubled.

"Teaching was more exciting," Zellner says. "I would still be doing it if I could have made it. They were the best five years of my life."

While not every former teacher fits into Zellner's category, many say they saw themselves "falling further and further behind inflation." The ex-educators say they had to quit before it was too late.

School administrators, however, say they are not seeing a dramatic increase in the number of teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement and illness. All school officials contacted said they had no exact figures on the number of resignations.

"Many teachers feel trapped," says a former teacher who asked not to be identified because of a pending job recommendation from the Fairfax County school system. "They feel they are not young enough to leave and start something else.

"I looked ten years down the road and didn't see my situation getting any better. I knew if I didn't leave now I'd be trapped."

In addition ot salaries, many former teachers complain that advancement is a slow process and almost nonexistent for the educator who does not aspore to administration heights.

Teachers with as many as 14 years of experience are turning their backs on education because they regard the field as a dead-end.

"The outlook for the classroom teacher is a dead end," Vic Cornacchione says flatly. "There is no recognition at the top of the scale for longevity." s

Cornacchione came to Fairfax County in 1965 and taught at Greenbriar East Elementary school until his resignation in December. He also served a term as president of the Fairfax Education Association.Cornacchione plans to open an auto refinishing and body shop next month.

At 49, the former teacher says the decision to leave education was not an easy one. Cornacchione says he loves young children -- their outlook on life and eagerness to learn. He says he had to leave.

"I have an 11-year-old son and he was very definitely a concern," Cornacchione says. "Knowing that I couldn't save any money with college in the future for him was a consideration."

In a recent budget hearing before the Fairfax County School Board, the president of the Fairfax County American Federation of Teachers, Rick Nelson, asked board members why classroom teachers are "punished" for remaining in the classroom.

"Why must teachers leave the classroom to make a decent living?" Nelson asked.

Some former Arlington teachers say they became embittered as they watched the ranks of teachers being thinned in the wake of declining enrollments, while administrative positions were left intact.

Ernest Robeson, a former Arlington teacher turned furniture mover, says that while he never expected to get rich as a teacher, he became angered when teachers were released, "yet there were no cutbacks in the bureaucratic jobs."

One married couple, both former Fairfax County teachers, say they were faced with a series of difficult decisions.

"The reason it hit us so hard is we were both in the field," says the woman. "Three years ago we sat down with a financial adviser who told us that with our salaries we had to make a decision -- wwe could buy a townhouse for $58,000 or we could have a family. He said we couldn't afford both.

We decided not to have a family."

Both quit teaching recently. The woman is looking for a job and the man now works as a flight attendent with an East Coast airline.

"With his first paycheck he netted -- I stress netted -- $300 more a month than he did as a teacher. He netted $200 more than a Fairfax County teacher with a master's degree and 10 years experience," she says. "And with the airlines, the benefits are fabulous."

Gayla Kraetsch, a former Fairfax County teacher who now works for the Academy for Educational Development, says she liked teaching and liked Fairfax County but left because advancement was a slow process -- even with her doctorate.

"I miss the classroom, to be honest," Kraetsch says. "I would have been at the top of the Fairfax County (pay) scale and I got about the same amount here -- but I was at the bottom of the scale."

While no one knows for sure how many teachers are leaving the profession, some citizens fear that rampant inflation, coupled with low salaries will force good teachers into private industry.

At a Fairfax County budget hearing last week one speaker said: "If we don't give our teachers the raises they deserve, the best ones will leave to find better paying jobs."

"I think I was a good teacher," says a former Fairfax high school teacher who has resigned, but has not yet found work. "I feel an awful lot of the ones that are leaving are the best.

"It just got to the point where I couldn't afford to live on dedication any more. Dedication wasn't paying my bills."