The countdown is on -- and nearly over.

Just five blissful days remain before thousands of Northern Virginia students return to classes for the start of another school year.

Harried parents, presumably, look forward to the start of school. But what about the teachers?

If Fairfax County is any indication, the news is good.

Teachers and administrators say they are optimistic about the coming school year. In fact, many say, for the first time in a decade, they are looking forward to a return to the classroom.

Fairfax teachers say they have two reasons for their optimism: Working conditions are better and pay has improved slightly.

But for educators throughtout Northern Virginia there is even more good news: The kids are better behaved.

Most teachers in Fairfax agree that teaching is easier because students are behaving better than their older brothers and sisters.

While teachers in New York and Chicago are outfitting classroom doors with deadbolt locks and enrolling in self-defense classes, Fairfax County educators say student behavior is improving -- despite a school survey last spring that showed discipline to be the number one concern of teachers.

"I think the [students] have really settled down," says Jim Clark, assistant principal at Chantilly Secondary School. "They are much, much quieter than even five or seven years ago."

Looking back over the decade, educators say today's students are "angels" by comparison.

"The kids were horrible (in the early 1970s)," says one teacher. "Just across the river, Washington was burning. There were protests everywhere and it all trickled down into the schools.

"Thank goodness things are quiet again."

It was during the Vietnam era that student discipline began to deteriorate, educators say. It was a time of sit-ins and walkouts. Students wanted an end to the war and the right to wear jeans to school.

"It was a time when kids were questioning everything," says Clark. "While some of it did get out of hand, I found that very challenging.

"The administration has certainly changed in response."

It was that change and the inclusion of students on nearly every decision-making body that many educators say has acted as a safety valve for student frustrations.

"Ten years ago the students had nothing to say about anything," one teacher says. "They felt powerless.

"Now every school has a student advisory committee. Students on PTA, executive boards and even on the school board . . . they don't have any power now, but at least school administrators are forced to listen to them -- it's been very constructive for everyone."

Teachers also say that parents are taking a renewed interest in education.

"Parents are much more interested in their children's education," says Larry Armentrout, a social studies teacher at Poe Intermediate School. "And consequently, the Vietnam War is going away."

But teachers say that because of the experience of the 1970s, students will never be the same again.

"The language you hear from these kids is terrible," says Armentrout. "They really don't care what adults hear them say.

"I don't know where they pick it up. I don't think it's from their parents -- maybe their older brothers and sisters, maybe from the movies."

Teachers also say that the drug problem of the 1970s is on the decline, but they worry that alcohol abuse will be the drug of choice in the '80s.

"I've had 8-year-olds come to school drunk," said one Chantilly area teacher. "I worry more about alcohol than I ever did about drugs.

Administrators say they are responding to the rapid spread of alcohol by sponsoring "substance abuse" seminars throughout the year for parents and students urging teachers to discuss the dangers of alcohol with students.

In spite of the traumas of the 1970s, some educators look back with a sense of nostalgia to the days when students begin to question authority and demand their rights.

Some educators say the faltering national economy has had a sobering effect on students who worry about jobs when they get out of school.

"The economy is having a big effect on kids," acknowledges Assistant principal Clark. "They realize education does have a payoff.

"But at the same time, students today are not as excited as they were 10 years ago. Before they do anything, they want to be sure it's going to count on their grades.

"To sit in a government class today is really different than a few years ago when there would have been a lively discussion.Now it's very quiet, there isn't the give and take -- no more why's."

And while the students may be slightly easier to handle, teachers say their own job is made more difficult by federal, state and local regulations which force them to tackle reams of paperwork.

"The biggest change I see in teaching is the increasing demands being made upon teachers," says sixth grade teacher Donna Daniele, who has taught in Fairfax for nine years. "Last year I had 26 students in my class and that was low -- but two of the students were being mainstreamed out of the learning disabled class and one was totally blind."

Although Daniele says she "had a great year," she says there are some problems with the increasing workload.

"I'm always looking for a challenge -- but still, I can't believe the things we're asked to do."

According to Daniele, the kids have it harder, too.

"They're so worldly," she says of her 11-year-old students. "They have so many life responsibilities.

"I hear my kids talking about intermediate school. They're so afraid of all the drugs they hear about.

"They're really not kids anymore."