Elaine Lebar recalls very clearly the idealism and enthusiasm she brought to her early years as a teacher. Like so many others just beginning their careers, she loved the feelings of satisfaction and achievement that went with helping young minds and characters grow and develop, and the sheer enjoyment of working with young people.

Fifteen years later Lebar quit, exhausted, fed up and afraid for her personal safety after repeated confrontations with hostile and antagonistic students.

"You cannot walk into a situation every morning and be afraid," said Lebar, 52, a former music teacher in the Anne Arundel County public schools.

"I just decided it wasn't worth it. I no longer found any enjoyment, and the work became very demanding. I had reached the point where I was thoroughly exhausted. I am a small woman physically, and I began more and more to feel that if you only weighed 100 pounds, you did not belong in a public school."

Lebar is but one example of a trend that in recent years has become a matter of increasing concern in the public schools of Maryland and throughout the nation: teacher burnout.

In an editorial in the December issue of Education Today, National Education Association president Willard H. McGuire called burnout "a major new malady . . . that threatens to reach epidemic proportions if it isn't checked soon."

"It has already stricken thousands of sensitive, thoughtful and dedicated teachers -- teachers who are abandoning their profession. Additional thousands may join their peers for they fear for their physical and mental health," McGuire warned.

An NEA poll last year found that more than a third of the nation's teachers would choose another line of work if they could go back to college and start over, and only six in 10 teachers said they planned to continue teaching until they reach retirement age.

To a degree, the burnout problem has always been an occupational hazard in teaching, according to experts who have studied it. But in the last five years, with deteriorating disciplinary and academic standards, mounting demands for accountability, involuntary transfers and layoffs brought on by dwindling enrollments, the declining purchasing power of salaries, laws requiring that handicapped and learning disabled students be taught in regular classrooms and increased pressure from parents, taxpayers and administrators -- burnout has increased dramatically.

"It is a function of the unrealistic demands that are being placed on the teachers," says Kenneth Burlingame, a school psychologist."Schools are being expected to solve all of society's problems, and teachers are being expected not only to be educators, but to be parents as well.

"More and more youngsters are in the educational system who really don't want to be there. There is a lack of discipline and a lack of respect for the teacher as a professional. What is a teacher supposed to do when they keep sending the same kid back to the classroom who's been telling the teacher, 'f . . . you.'

"There used to be a time when youngsters with special needs were in special schools or they weren't identified as having special needs. Now those younsters are identified and they are in the regular classrooms. For the teachers that means tons more paperwork and a lot more accountability," Burlingame said.

The result of all this, say educators, is a corps of teachers that grows more and more demoralized and disillusioned each year. Some opt for early retirement or change careers in mid-life. Others stay on the job, but they've stopped caring and they just go through the motions.

"You begin to get bored and cynical, and you say to yourself, 'What difference does it make?'" said Patricia Lane, a special education teacher at Montgomery County's Rocking Horse Elementary School.

"I give so much at school that sometimes I just feel drained. I'm trying to be a wife, a mother, a teacher, and I'm trying to be myself. What's the first thing that gets wiped out? Myself."

Lane, 37, takes her job seriously, and she has attended a variety of workshops and seminars on stress and burnout. She feels she has overcome the burnout syndrome and she is returning to school to work on a Ph.D. so she can advance in her career.

But more than once in her 12 years of teaching, she says, she has had the feeling that she "had too much to do, not enough time to do it, and wasn't doing anything well."

"Teachers by and large have a sense of isolation," says Mimi Cameron, who directs an assistance program for Montgomery County public school employes with professional or personal problems.

"They have a sense of powerlessness. Not infrequently, they set goals and standards for themselves that are unreachable. Then they feel badly about themselves for not reaching them."

Said one Montgomery County high school teacher, who would not permit publication of her name, "I have learned to cope. What does that mean? It means lowering your standards. It means grade inflation. It means a lack of concern. A group of us were debating just the other day how we were going to get through the last nine weeks of school. One of the teachers said she had given up on all class preparation. She said she didn't think it would accomplish anything."

Rosalie Evans, a teacher of third and fourth graders at Manor View Elementary School at Fort Meade, says, as do many of her colleagues, that today's children, themselves subjected to increasing stress from parents' broken marriages, financial uncertainties and the like, are more difficult to handle.

"Kids are not the way they used to be," said Evans. "They really are hostile and aggressive. They're arrogant. And it seems that the kid is always right and the teacher is always wrong."

Observed a teacher in Prince George's County, "I've been teaching for 20 years and I can tell you it's gone downhill steadily. There is no longer any regard or observance of deadlines."

To help teachers in Prince George's deal with the pressures and stresses that might lead to burnout, the school system has set up a special program called creative conflict management in which teachers act out various types of student-teacher confrontations.

"We try to give people an opportunity to practice a variety of styles of dealing with conflict," said Ted Coulson, a human relations coordinator who directs the program.

Last month a film crew from California spent the better part of a week in Prince George's County, shooting sessions of Coulson's program for a television documentary called "Combat in the Classroom."

Ironically, it is often the best, most dedicated, enthusiastic and conscientious teachers who are the prime candidates for burnout.

"To be burned out, you must have once been on fire," Mark W. Kiefaber, codirector of the Baltimore based Training Intervention Associates, told a conference on teacher burnout in Columbia last month.

"Burnout is a process that generally starts with high enthusiasm and dedication, but there is a dramatic reversal in attitude and behavior. Teachers who are burned out feel their students are demanding more than they can possibly give. When they begin to feel that way, they begin to dislike their students and then they feel guilty for disliking them. Then they start to feel tired all the time. They begin to dread getting up in the morning and going to work. They don't want to deal with anything that has to do with people."

Kiefaber was speaking at a meeting on teacher burnout organized by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. It was one of many efforts by educators over the last two years to address the issues of stress and burnout in the teaching profession.

"It's helpful just to get people together to talk about the burnout problem," said Dennis Sparks, director of the federally sponsored Northwest Staff Development Center in Livonia, Mich. For the better part of two years, Sparks has been running workshops and seminars on burnout for school districts throughout the nation, including one last week in Anne Arundel County.

"It seems to be a fairly pervasive problem. We're seeing it in the large city schools, the rural schools and the suburban schools. It doesn't seem to matter," said Sparks. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Allen Carroll for The Washington Post; Picture, Teacher Patricia Lane: ". . . Sometimes I just feel drained." By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post