Mary Hatwood Futrell returned home to Alexandria yesterday, where she taught school for 20 years, and as the newly elected president of the National Education Association made it clear that she will not stand by while her profession is bombarded with criticism.

"We underpaid teachers are tired, we are frustrated and we are angry, and we are ticked off," she said. "And many of us, if we had another opportunity, would go some where else and look for another way to cope."

Addressing a back-to-school pep rally at T.C. Williams High School for 1,200 Alexandria teachers, administrators and support staff, Futrell urged the teachers to fight for education and not let "people hammer you into the ground."

She says the harshest critics of teachers only want "wind-up teachers who are cheap to build, cheap to educate, cheap to operate and cheap to maintain. And we are going to have to let them know that that will not be tolerated any more."

Futrell, who began her teaching career in Alexandria at the all-black Parker-Gray High School, said teachers today "stand in a new time and a new place. And we stand ready to use our considerable professional and organizational skills to firmly advance the cause of excellence in our profession and our classrooms."

The Alexandria Education Association, which represents most of the city's teachers, asked that Futrell be allowed to give the formal address at yesterday's back-to-school program, a speech that typically is given by the city school superintendent. Yesterday superintendent Robert Peebles let Futrell have the the honors, but didn't pass up the opportunity at the opening of the program to play the clarinet with a jazz group that includes a school board member and several teachers.

"This is the way we want school to start every day," he joked as the seven-member combo, named "Peebles' Pebbles," broke into a rendition of "Making Whoopee."

That and the combo's finale-"A Foggy Day in London Town," had the school employes clapping and swaying. But it was Futrell's defense of the classroom teacher as the key to educational progress that fired the crowd.

By 1990, she said, educational studies project that 40 percent of minority 17-year-olds will be functionally illiterate. She said those children, who are in the third and fourth grades now, can be saved. "We should be identifying those black kids, those Hispanic kids, those poor kids, those educationally disadvantaged kids today and providing programs to help those children.

"We need to teach them discipline of the mind as well as discipline of the body," she said. "We need to do that. And we need to teach them how to have self confidence and that they can dream any dream that they want and achieve it if they just prepare themselves right now . . . . If we have anyone who cannot do that with every child," than they should seriously consider whether they should be a teacher, she said.

Futrell said minority and female students are underrepresented in traditional academic courses, and "I know that is a problem in Alexandria . . . . ." Almost half of the city's student population is black.

The last school year ended on a bad note in Alexandria after teachers turned in a vote of no confidence on Peebles, primarily because they were upset about a 3 percent cost-of-living increase they received instead of the 4 percent raise they requested.

Teachers still are opposed to Peebles' policy to link teacher salary increments to performance evaluations and they are alarmed by Peebles' plan to institute a form of merit pay for the system's 770 teachers.

"The same problems are still there," said Hazel Rigby, president of the Education Association of Alexandria. "And we'll begin discussion on them in October."

But as fourth-grade teacher Joi Wesley Adams was leaving the crowded auditorium she said she felt a renewed optimism.

"This was good," she said. "It gave me hope that things would be better."