Like many of her colleagues in the Prince George's school system, Celeste Williams quit her job as a teacher last spring. Unlike most of the others, Williams wasn't giving up on the county.

Although many teachers left for higher-paying jobs in other districts or quit the profession entirely, Williams made a decision to try to help improve conditions for all teachers. She ran for the vacant position of president of the Prince George's teachers union and was elected.

This might be the biggest challenge yet for Williams, who spent 25 years as a teacher in the county before taking on her new role.

Teachers are clamoring for higher salaries, more support from administrators, renovated classrooms and smaller class sizes, among other things. A steady exodus, combined with a national teacher shortage, has left Prince George's with the state's highest percentage of uncertified teachers in the state--about 17 percent.

"I'm fighting for a compatible salary to be the very first thing on the agenda," said Williams, who has a two-year term. "If you can't keep the qualified people here, what do you have?"

Williams appears less willing to engage in a war of words, as other union reps have over the years. But she says she is committed to fighting for her colleagues. After all, the Wilmington, N.C., native taught for four years in Kent County in Chestertown, Md., before coming to Prince George's because her husband opened a business here.

After 10 years as a middle school teacher, she moved to Friendly High School, where she spent the past 15 years in the science department.

She has always been active in the union, serving on the board of directors during her predecessor Janette Bell's tenure as president. She decided to run "because I feel that everybody has a place in life for something."

Listening to the complaints of teachers and sitting at the negotiating table have been a change. "It's a lot more work, and there's a lot that I have to learn," she said. "But I'm enjoying it."

CAPTION: Celeste Williams, of the teachers union.