William J. Burkholder came up through the educational ranks the hard way. He drove a school bus over rural backroads as a teen-ager. He gave up a job as a high school principal in tiny Bedford, Va., to start at the bottom as an elementary school teacher in Fairfax County. Then he was riffed after his first year.

Now, after 26 years in the county school system, Burkholder said he is facing the toughest job of all: acting superintendent, the position with a prestigious title and a thousand headaches.

And for Burkholder, a soft-spoken, easygoing man, the job has an added pressure. School board members, colleagues and community leaders have been pushing him to take over the superintendent's office permanently. Several board members have said Burkholder is their first choice for the superintendent's job.

"I've received words of encouragement to accept the position," said Burkholder, 53, who became acting superintendent of the metropolitan area's largest school system Saturday. Deputy superintendent since 1977, Burkholder was selected to run the school system temporarily after the school board last month pressured Superintendent Linton Deck Jr. to resign.

But Burkholder isn't rushing his official response. And the "Will he?" or "Won't he?" guessing game has been a favorite coffee break and lunchtime subject of school employes for several weeks. Employes may be able to collect on their bets after tomorrow night's school board meeting.

"I've encouraged him to take the job," said school board member Gerald A. Fill, who said he plans to push for Burkholder's appointment at tomorrow's meeting. "The question is whether he wants the job."

School board members have said they are not looking outside the school system for a permanent superintendent. Some members said they want to give Burkholder the first chance to take the job. If he turns them down, some members said, they will search within the school system for a candidate before they begin an outside hunt.

Ask Burkholder if he wants the job and he'll recount one of his recent telephone conversations with a friend.

"Someone asked me, 'Do you want the job?' " Burkholder recalled. "I said, 'No.' They said, 'Then don't take it.' "

Burkholder hints that he won't necessarily take the advice.

"I haven't decided," he said coyly, later adding: "The term of a superintendent is not what it used to be. I haven't forgotten that. You can be number two a long time, but number one is something else."

Burkholder said he's leaving his old office vacant: "I'm not going to fill the job of deputy superintendent until I know if I want to come back to it."

He said the decision will be made soon: "I don't think the board will allow the job to go unfilled for a long period of time."

Burkholder, a native Virginian better known as "Jack" to his friends and colleagues, has spent the past 26 years in the Fairfax school system. He came on the advice of a colleague in rural central Virginia where he began his career. "A principal there told me if I wanted to go where the action was going to be in education, then go to Northern Virginia."

So in 1956, young Burkholder took a professional step backwards and left his job as principal of Big Island High School to become an elementary school teacher in Fairfax County. At the end of that first year he lost his job when the school system cut the teaching staff at Bush Hill Elementary. But a new school, Rose Hill Elementary, opened across the street the next year, and Burkholder was back in the classroom.

A year later, he began his ascent up the administrative ladder in the growing Fairfax school system. He hopped from an assistant principal at Mount Vernon High School to supervisor of secondary education in the central office.

Within a few months, he was asked to spend a couple of weeks helping out the short-staffed personnel department. "I stayed for 13 years," he chuckled. Burkholder served as assistant superintendent for personnel service and chairman of the school board negotiating team during a time when the board and school employes were involved in collective bargaining.

In 1977, he was named the second ranking adminstrator in the school system by Superintendent S. Jack Davis. Two years later, he temporarily took over the superintendency when Davis left to become state superintendent of education.

The school board asked him to keep the job, but Burkholder turned it down, content to return to the deputy superintendent's job where he was in charge of much of the daily operation of the school system.

Now, for the second time, he's back in the same seat, tackling the same decision.

"I've struggled with the decision of course," he said, a slow smile spreading across his face. "But I don't allow it to worry me."