Linda Cutting has been laid off three times in the last four years. Her work record has been commendable and her bosses always said they were sorry to see her go.
But then Cutting says she knew pink slips would be an occupational hazard when she became a school teacher.
"When I got my notice this last time, the principal's secretary held my hand like I was going to pass out," said Cutting, a 27-year-old fifth grade teacher who has followed an itinerant teaching trail from Pennsylvania to Virginia's Prince William County in search of the fire-proof job. "I told her to relax, I know how to act. I've been through this before."
Spring has lately become a time for teacher traumas in the Washington area. As city and county boards perform their annual budget-balancing acts, jobs are in jeopardy. And when declining school enrollments are exposed to tax-cutting fever, many of the casualties are teachers.
Even in places where enrollment is increasing, as it is in Prince William, teachers such as Cutting are discovering that there is no longer certainty that teachers may grow gray in their profession.
"It is to be that if you were a teacher, you were one of the secure people in our society," says Howard Carroll, a spokesman for the National Education Association, an organization that claims to represent 1.7 million of the nation's 2.2 million public school teachers. "Now, all bets are off."
This week, as local governments throughout the area complete budgets for next year, hundreds of public school teachers are waiting to see if the pink slips they've already received are for real.
Some school boards regularly mail an exaggerated number of layoff notices to employes each spring. It is both a precautionary measure in case of unexpected fund cuts and, some board members admit, a bargaining tool to drum up community support for increased budget requests.
"I am a political pawn between the school board and the county board," says Sally Bassler, one of 173 Arlington teachers who has been given a pink slip this spring. Bassler, an English and journalism teacher at Washington and Lee High School with nine years experience, says she regards the efforts of teachers groups to stop budget cuts as "futile." Even so she remains optimistic that she will be teaching in Arlington again next year.
Linda Cutting is not as sure. As a first-year teacher in Prince William County, her name is at the top of the list of those to lose their jobs.
"There's nothing else I'm trained to do," says Cutting. "I don't have a husband to count on for another salary. All I have is my dog and I can't put her to work."
This year the prospects of President Reagan's proposed cuts in federal aid to education may transform the annual pink slip roulette into reality for some school employes.
"The full impact of President Reagan's cuts . . . would be devastating," says Bill Costello, president of the Fairfax County Education Association, which represents 6,200 of the county's 8,000 teachers. Fairfax officials estimate taht the county could lose $14 million in federal funds -- and an undetermined number of jobs -- next year if all of Reagan's budget cuts are approved by Congress.
The National Association of School Boards has said that as many as 200,000 jobs in education could be lost under Reagan's proposals. In Virginia, where 11 percent of local school budgets come from Washington, state officials estimate that 4,000 teachers, administrators and aides could lose their jobs.
Teachers and administrators have reacted with alarm. National teachers' organizations have turned to Congress and local teachers' associations have both begged and threatened their own budget builders to provide more funds as a cushion against the expected losses. But faced with the difficulty of raising local taxes, most localities have decided to risk labor trouble and resisted the pleas.
"Teachers in this county are very upset. The schools have become a political football," says John Sisson, president of the teachers association in Maryland's Prince George's County, where 300 teachers earlier this year staged a "sickout."
But in neighboring Montgomery County, a school spokesman said no teacher layoffs are expected for the next school year, and only about a dozen teachers have been let go over the last 10 years when the schools' enrollment dropped by 25,000 students.
Teachers, both in Virginia and nationally, are again threatening job actions, including strikes. Twenty years ago that type of response from teachers would have seemed shocking. But the same economic conditions that have recently destroyed the myth of job security in the teaching profession have also radically altered the stereotype of America's school teacher.
The slightly absent-minded school marm, insulated from outside traffic by blackboards and spelling bees, is being suspended by an increasingly militant, dues-paying member of a teachers group who can be counted on to pack county board meetings and stand on a picket line in front of the state capitol.
"A lot of people are waking up here and becoming more hard-nosed," says Joy Arnold, an official with the Prince William Education Association where 380 education employes were sent layoff notices this spring.
The change in image troubles some, espeicially in Virginia where public employes are barred by state law from collective bargaining. "Teachers feel the public image of them is changing from someone who cares about children to someone who cares only about salaries," says Barby Halstead, an official with the Fairfax Education Association. the Fairfax Education Association.
Conflict flared recently in Arlington when members of a teachers group, angry over proposed cuts in school spending, attempted to parade into a board room with a black casket symbolizing the death of support for the county's schools. Guards barred them from the session.
Arlington County Board Chairman Stephen Detwiler was infuriated last month by reports that some teachers were encouraging their students to write letters seeking more school spending. "Your teachers are very selfish," Detwiler wrote back to one student. "They are thinking only about themselves and not about the elderly grandparents in Arlington."
The Arlington teachers group responded angrily that Detwiler's letter showed "calculated malice towards schools and their supporters." It was, some teachers say, typical of the loss in public esteem that has prompted many of the best and brightest to leave the profession.
"More and more, teachers are dropping out, copping out or opting out because they're burned out," says Gerry Gripper, a past president of the teachers' association in Fairfax.
In the December 1980 issue of Education Today, NEA president Willard H. McGuire called "burnout" in the teaching profession "a major new malady . . . threatens to reach epidemic proportions if it isn't checked soon."
While good teachers leave, their replacements arrive with less impressive credentials. In the fall of 1979, Timothy Weaver, an associate professor of education at Boston University, released a six-year study which showed that college board test scores for education majors had declined dramatically when compared to the general undergraudate population. Last year a Virginia school study showed that graduates of teacher certification programs in the state scored an average 121 points lower on standardized tests that did graduates in other fields.