It could be said that Mary Hatwood Futrell got a taste of what political activism is really all about three years ago when the Virginia Supreme Court outlawed collective bargaining for public employes.

As president of the Virginia Education Association, the state teachers lobby that supported the collective bargaining system then in effect, Futrell was confronted with a lost cause and a dejected constituency. Yet, say her colleagues, Futrell's personal charisma and emphasis on unity helped keep the state teachers' movement from falling apart.

Now as Futrell begins a two-year term as secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association, those same colleagues are confidant that Futrell, an Alexandria teacher, will offer the same strong leadership.

"The position is an indication of her outstanding qualities," said Steve Osisek, Futrell's principal at George Washington Junior High School. "She is an excellent teacher who enjoys teaching and helping kids."

"When she first went down to Richmond (to head the VEA), those of us on the school board felt she would eventually hold national office," said Shirley N. Tyler, the new chairman of the Alexandria School Board.

Futrell is a new-breed teacher, one who is as dedicated to an active political role as to the classroom. Her activism is a reflection of the changes in the organization she will help lead, the 1.8 million-member NEA that only lately has come of political age.

Four years ago, for the first time, the NEA endorsed a presidential candidate -- Jimmy Carter. This year the association has emerged as the largest single interest group at the Democratic National Convention. Once again, the teachers have backed Carter.

"I don't think teachers are going to have much choice than to become more political," said Futrell, echoing the sentiments of other national and local teachers' leaders. "Five years ago, many teachers would have said that was a dirty word. But everything we have in education is political -- whether we have a job and what salary we get, for example. I hope we can come outside of our classroom if we want to get money for public education and elect people supportive of public education."

Futrell contends that many decisions affecting teachers and students have been imposed by legislatures and administrators without consultation with the professionals in the classroom.

"The legislature passed minimum competency standards," she said. "We had to implement them. No choice.

"We are asked to teach handicapped children, but are not trained in how to handle them . . .

"We have refugee children in our classes, but no one tells us how to treat them. Most teachers don't object to this, except that it is just thrown on them.

"I see teachers becoming more and more frustrated because here we are with bachelor of science and masters degrees but we have no input. We are often treated like we have no common sense, or that we are not reasonable, rational people."

Collective bargaining, Futrell says, would be one remedy to that problem. The NEA will once again press for a federal law or an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act that would require collective bargaining for employes.

"Until we get this law, what happened in Virginia in 1977 could happen anywhere in this country," said Futrell. "We need a viable vehicle, and we're going to keep trying."

Collective bargaining for teachers is the "number one" priority before the VEA and has been overwhelmingly favored by officials in Northern Virginia jurisdictions despite the 1977 court ruling.

"Slowly but surely we're seeing an increase in the number of legislators who owe a good deal of their election to teacher support," said Val Martin, outgoing president of the Educational Association of Alexandria.

That is the way the game is played, and the traditionally nonpolitical NEA has caught on. At its recent convention in Los Angeles, the teachers pointedly noted that Ronald Reagan's call for abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, his support of tuition-tax credits for private-school students, his views on school financing and his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment will make his platform "unpopular among the nation's educators."

NEA members also were angered when Reagan characterized the association as "becoming more and more a sort of union of educators, and I don't believe that is right."

Says Futrell: "I don't see where he's going to do any justice to children as a whole."

Futrell, a Virginia native, has taught in Alexandria for 17 years and now is chairman of the business department at George Washington Junior High School. She will take a two-year leave of absence when she begins her NEA duties Sept. 1. Her husband Donald is a coach at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.

She has served as president of the Education Association of Alexandria as well as the VEA and was appointed to three gubernatorial advisory commissions studying teacher certification, the state retirement system and a 1977 bond referendum. She was elected as a minority representative to the NEA board of directors in 1978. She also is president of ERAmerica, a national group coordinating pro-ERA activities.

"I think the NEA is a change agent," Futrell says. "We are going to need leaders who are very close to what is going on in the classroom . . . The portrayal of public education is very negative. I personally don't believe public education is as negative as it's portrayed to be.

"A lot of people say we've not been doing the job, but they have put on blinders. We're being told to take care of all society's ills, and if we are not getting support from the community, that makes our job much tougher."