Burnout -- the result of rapidly mounting stress and pressure on the job -- is rising dramatically in Washington's corps of public school teachers.

"The school system is just a citadel of stress," says Paulette Bell, an educational consultant on the burnout syndrome and a self-described "classic example of a burned out teacher."

It was six years after she began her career as an English teacher at Northeast Washington's Roper Junior High School that Bell reached the end of her rope.

"I was overworked, fatigued and frustrated. There was the pressure of dealing with 30 or 40 children in the classroom at one time," said Bell. "But I was also the sole support of two small children. I was working two jobs.

"I taught theater after school at Frienship House, and I gave as much as I could to all the children. Then I would get home and be all tired out and I would not have any time for my own children."

As the school year wore on, Bell recalled, her mental attitude and her professional life deteriorated. Her class preparation became more and more disorganized. She usually had a splitting headache when she got home from work and put her children to bed as quickly as possible to get them out of the way.

"I started to develop feelings of persecution. That's a sure sign of burn out," she said.

By the end of school, Bell had to get out. She took a year's sabbatical to recover.

Bell is but one example of burnout, a trend that has become of increasing concern to education officials here and around the nation.

"We have teachers coming in here all the time saying, 'I've just got to get out of the classroom. I can't take it anymore. I've had it. You've got to get me out,'" sayd Claudette Helms, director of personnel for the D.C. public schools.

In an editorial in December's issue of Education Today, National Education Association president Willard H. McGuire called burnout in the teaching profession "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 one-third of the nation's teachers would choose another line of work if they could go back to college and start over; 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 the teaching profession, according to experts. But in the last five years, with deteriorating disciplinary and academic standards, mounting demands for accountability, involuntary transfer and layoffs brought on by dwindling enrollments, the decline in the 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.

"We have teachers who come to the job burning with energy and they want to shake the world," says D.C. school board member John Warren. "But they get burdened with students who have such overwhelming needs that they can't possibly meet them. Pretty soon they tend to accept the hopelessness of the situation. Then the parents pick up the negative feelings from the teachers, and it just reinforces all their negative feelings about the system.

"We have students who are burned out. We have teachers who are burned out. We have administrators who are burned out. And we have school board members who are burned out."

John Spearmon, a physical science teacher at Deal Junior High School, says mental fatigue has become part of the profession.

"Burnout is a serious problem because of the many hats we have to wear," he said. "We're asked to be teachers, counselors, public relations people, mothers and fathers even. And we're under pressure all the time from parents, students and administrators."

To get the job done right, says Jimmie Jackson, a veteran of 20 years in the teaching business, including 14 at far Southeast Washington's Hart Junior High School, "you almost have to get on a complete high and then stay there all day.

"Children aren't responding the way they did five years ago," Jackson said, "and parents aren't as cooperative as they were five years ago. No matter how energetic you are, you can exhaust everything you have trying to make sure the children are getting what they need."

Two years ago, Jackson left the classroom to organize the D.C. Teachers' Center, a training program for D.C. teachers on a variety of issues including stress and burnout.

"We feel we must do something to lift the morale of the classroom teachers," said Jackson. "There is a lot of expertise out there, but we don't have the motivation."

Among the major causes of stress in the teaching business, educators say, is the sense of isolation many teachers feel.

"You're confined in a classroom behind four walls all day," said one teacher. "You may be dealing with as many as 150 kids. Some of them got up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning. Some of them are having fights with their boyfriends.

"Some of them are fighting with their parents. Some of them are fightng with everybody. And some of them really want to learn. But it can take all the strength you have just to get their attention."

Burned out teachers may opt for early retirement or career changes but many remain on the job, educators say. If they do stay, they have stopped caring and are just going through the motions.

"There are some people who actually become zombies," said Paulette Bell. "They take pills and walk around glassy-eyed all day. Nothing bothers them at all.

"There is another group of teachers that plays cards every free minute, before school, during break, during planning time and after school. They don't skip classes. But it is the card games that get them through the day.

"The gung ho younger teachers who try to do something extra get punished for it. Their colleagues punish them because they feel less guilty if the young teachers aren't doing anything. And the administration punishes them by making them go through so much red tape."

Next month Bell will be leading a class for teachers on stress and burnout at the D.C. Teachers' Center.

It is ironic, say educators, that the prime candidates for burnout are often the best, most dedicated, enthusiastic and conscientious teachers.

"To be burned out, you must have once been on fire," says Mark W. Kiefarber, co-director of the Baltimore-based Training Intervention Associates.

"Burnout is a process that generally starts with high enthusiasm and dedication, but there is a drastic 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 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."

The final stage of burnout, said Kiefarber, is a feeling of "total alienation from all people and tasks. You don't care about anything. Your whole life is just a role that you're playing."

It is also true, say educators, that burnout is a problem that is found at all types and sizes of schools in all sections of the country.

"It seems to be a fairly pervasive problem," says Dennis Sparks, director of the federally sponsored Northwest Staff Development Center in Livonia, Mich., and a nationally recognized expert on burnout.

"We see it in the large city schools, the rural schools and the suburban schools. It doesn't seem to matter."