Suzanne King never expected to find herself at a D.C. teacher job fair. For two years, she had focused on getting a job teaching math at a Montgomery County high school.

That was her goal when she enrolled in the education master's degree program at American University after eight years working on Wall Street, then getting married and moving to Chevy Chase. She wanted the regular hours of a teaching job so she could care for her three young children, and she wanted to teach in Montgomery, a school system she admired.

But after a student teaching internship this winter and spring at the District's Wilson High School, King began to waver. Her professional partner at Wilson was a wonderful role model. The students responded in imaginative ways to King's class assignments.

"At the end of the school year, I had the most sullen of the sullen saying, 'Mrs. King, we're going to miss you,' " she said. "It was such an emotionally rich time for me."

So King, 37, decided to attend the spring job fair in the District, even though it promised to create a painful dilemma for her.

It is the year of the acute teaching shortage, a year when education school graduates have never had so many job offers to consider. Faced with the double whammy of student enrollment growth and increasing teacher retirements, school system recruiters are battling fiercely over top teaching prospects.

But while it's flattering to be pursued, having so many choices is also forcing teaching candidates to think harder about what's most important to them. Does working for an innovative principal make up for a lower salary? Is it wise to sign a contract with a school district before getting an assignment to a particular school? Should one work at a low-performing school, where both the potential rewards and frustrations are greatest?

Many teaching school graduates also are facing pressure to make their job decisions quickly.

"Up until this year, we would always give our spring interns a little pep talk, telling them that even if you have had your interviews, don't expect to hear anything until the first week of August," said Linda Poole, director of the master of arts in teaching program at Johns Hopkins University. "That has changed completely and totally this year."

By the time Johns Hopkins held a teacher recruiting fair in April, Poole said, more than half of its interns already had jobs.

Three people in this year's crop of newly-minted Washington area teachers--Marc Rosenberg, Margaret Havemann and Suzanne King--took different paths in deciding where to teach and when to make their choice.

Marc Rosenberg was initially assigned to do his teaching internship in Fairfax County. But before setting foot in a Fairfax school, the George Washington University student sought and got a transfer to a school in the District.

"I sort of wanted to test my courage," said Rosenberg, 23, who lives in Dupont Circle and is originally from Cherry Hill, N.J.

He spent the internship teaching English at two D.C. public schools--School Without Walls and Paul Junior High--and concluded that the school system did not deserve its poor reputation. He enjoyed his classes and the work environment.

Since graduating this spring from George Washington's master's program, Rosenberg has signed a letter of intent to teach in the District. The problem is that D.C. school officials, who have hired about 580 of the 1,100 new teachers they need for this fall, haven't figured out yet which teachers will be placed at which schools.

Rosenberg prefers some D.C. schools to others. He wants to work for a principal like Paul Junior High's Cecile Middleton, who "definitely set the tone for achievement. She held people to high standards."

So Rosenberg is keeping his options open. He is mulling an offer to teach at a private school in Maryland. It would provide "more freedom, maybe smaller classes, maybe more parental involvement," he said, but "significantly less" in salary. He also has sent resumes to Baltimore and Fairfax County.

Rosenberg has given himself two weeks to make a decision about the Maryland school. By then he hopes to have a better idea of where he might be assigned in the District. Remembering the students he taught during his internship, he hopes he will wind up in the District.

"The kids were beautiful," he said. "The reality that I really got to see is that some kids have tough family situations and tough social situations, [but] you can definitely make connections with them."

Margaret Havemann didn't have to wait very long for the offers to come pouring in. Her master's degree from the University of Virginia is in special education, one of the specialties that is in the greatest demand among school districts across the country. Moreover, she wants to teach emotionally disturbed children in a middle school, where the shortage of special education teachers is especially high.

"I feel this is my calling," said Havemann, 24. "I don't want to have these kids an hour here or there. I want to know these kids inside and out."

In November, a month before her graduation, Havemann went to a teacher job fair at U-Va. and was swayed by the sales pitch of a Fairfax County recruiter. She sent Fairfax an application.

Then the calls started coming from other school systems: Loudoun County, Madison County, Culpeper County, Chesapeake. A recruiter from Las Vegas contacted her after finding her name through an Internet search. Knowing that she had just graduated, some districts told her she could start working in a classroom right after New Year's. But Havemann wanted to take a break and wait until the fall to start teaching.

In January, Fairfax offered her a job for the following September.

Was it really time to end a job search that had barely started? Havemann decided to pursue one other possibility. She took a cross-country jaunt to San Francisco and talked to school officials in a suburb about a 30-minute drive from the city.

It was hard to imagine a more beautiful area in which to live. Her salary would exceed $40,000 a year, compared to the $34,779 a starting teacher makes in Fairfax. But the cost of living in San Francisco was higher, and she would be far away from her family in Ohio. Fairfax also had advantages--plentiful training opportunities, a mentorship program for first-year instructors--that other districts did not seem able to match.

As soon as she returned from California, Havemann accepted Fairfax's offer. "Once I knew what I wanted, I just went for it," she said.

Suzanne King, despite her desire to teach in Montgomery, went to the D.C. job fair in May.

She was offered a contract on the spot, and within days she got calls from administrators at Hardy Middle School, Bell Multicultural High School and Coolidge High School, all asking her to work for them. "I felt like a deer in the headlights," she said. But she didn't get a call from Wilson, the D.C. high school where she had completed such a worthwhile internship.

By then, King already was far along in Montgomery's application process. On the same day in June, she scheduled a morning appointment with a Montgomery County recruiter and an afternoon interview with an administrator at Coolidge High. But she never made it to Coolidge. She signed a contract at the Montgomery appointment and called Coolidge to cancel her interview. Like Havemann, King did not know yet what school she would be assigned to.

Then King began hearing from teachers she knew at Wilson, who pleaded with her to reconsider. It was just a bureaucratic quirk that Wilson had been slower than other D.C. schools in contacting her, the teachers told her. If she called Wilson's principal, a job offer surely could be arranged, they said.

But it was too late.

King says she might have gone to Wilson if she had received a firm offer to teach there before her appointment in Montgomery. But when it came down to choosing between the two school systems, she felt that Montgomery would put more resources into its schools--computers, classroom supplies and other amenities--than the District would.

It wasn't about salary, King said. The $33,120 starting pay she would have received in the District, supplemented by a $1,000 signing bonus, matched up well with Montgomery's starting salary of $34,860.

She doesn't rule out returning to the District to teach some day.

"I'm kind of taking the easier, less noble path, I guess," King said. "But there are kids in Montgomery who need me, too."

CAPTION: Suzanne King chose Montgomery County from several area teaching offers.

CAPTION: Margaret Havemann's specialized degree increased her job options.