When Deborah Cunningham gets married this September, there will be no caterer, professional photographer, and no flowers, save for her bouquet.

The third-grade schoolteacher had been counting on all three, until the D.C. school system fired her two weeks ago, after seven years on the job.

"It's really depressing," she said. "It's really put a damper on the wedding and my life because you have to cut down on everything."

Barbara Holmes and her husband moved into their first home June 1 and were planning on sending their youngest daughter to parochial school in the fall. But two weeks later, Holmes, a first-grade teacher, received her dismissal notice.

Now Holmes is job hunting; her husband, a postal worker, is looking for a part-time job and they will send their daughter to public school.

Such was life last week as more than 350 District teachers, most of them women and many, single parents, started adjusting their lives to the reality of unemployment.

They are among the first wave of D.C. government employes to lose their jobs as city officials try to erase the red ink on the city's financial ledgers.

Blacks, like other ethnic groups, have placed a high value on education and teaching as a way out of menial jobs. In segregated Washington, when blacks were allowed to hold only the lowest of jobs in the federal and city governments, teachers and educators were among the most prestigious members of the city's black community.

While the esteem for teachers has fallen in recent years as blacks moved into high paying jobs in government and private industry, a teacher's salary has become an important second income to many black families. District teachers are among the highest paid in the area, earning an average yearly salary of $19,000 a year.

The firings have stunned many members of Washington's black middle class, many of whom were able to move up the economic and social ladder precisely because their mothers were teachers.

The layoffs have left many of the teachers confused, bitter and depressed as they cancel vacation plans and try to juggle utility bills, mortgage payments, and grocery bills.

"I had a dream the other night that the only job I could find was in a slaughterhouse. And they were showing me how to cut off the heads and I couldn't do it," said Lucretia Jackson, 29, a former fifth-grade teacher at Washington Highlands School in Southeast.

"I've given my best," said a woman who had taught for nine years. "All the work. All the raising of my daughter [by calling her home after school] on the phone. All the sacrificing for other children, and then to be told I don't have a job. I still can't believe it."

"My life is falling apart and there is nothing I can do about it," said a teacher who separated from her husband three months ago and then was fired last week. "Now what can I fall back on?"

The number of teachers laid off could climb to 800 before the firings are over. And there has been a lot of confusion about the layoffs. Would Congress provide more money for next year's budget to stave off some of the firings? Would the City Council change the retirement rules to let older teacher retire early? What are a teacher's chances of getting rehired?

Others feel the ax has fallen too frequently on the heads of teachers rather than administrators. "I would like to know when they are going to do something (to the school administrators) in the Presidential Building," said Ardridell Pannell, 51, who has taught for 10 years. "I have not heard anywhere that they have gotten rid of the assistant to the assistant to the assistant."

But William Simons, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said those who have been laid off should look for another job. When the mayor's recommendation that $35 million be cut from the school budget is "being accepted on the Hill, you have to come up with $35 million."

So for those who thought being a teacher meant economic security, it's a painful adjustment.

"I wasn't going to be a teacher," said Marilyn Wilson, one of 12 teachers fired at Friendship Elementary School in Southeast Washington. "This is my father's idea. He said a teacher always has a job. You would think after 12 years (eight in the District) you would have a job," she said.

Terminations were based solely on seniority, said school personnel director Charlotte Helms, with some consideration given to years in the military, the city or federal governments. Teachers who received an "outstanding" rating for the 1978-79 school year also earned the equivalent of an additional four years of service.

There were some mistakes made, Helms concedes, with some older teachers getting layoff notices when younger ones did not. But most of those have been corrected, she said.

All the uncertainties have led to sleepless nights for many teachers. Others try to hide the fact they've been fired, embarrassed that they are now unemployed.

"People feel it is a black mark -- being fired," said one kindergarten teacher, who asked that her name not be used. "They don't want people to know, even other teachers. It has a lot to do with the prestige of being a teacher."

Some of those who were laid off are planning to call it quits now.

"I was given permanent tenure and that didn't mean a hill of beans," said Jerome Carroll, a fourth-grade teacher at Bunker Hill Elementary School. "Right now I'm going to enjoy my summer and draw umemployment."

But Ardridell Pannell vows to be back at school in September -- even if she only volunteers her services. "I love teaching," she said. "The school bell can't ring without me. I can be used in some way."