THERE IS SUPPOSED to be a crisis in teaching in this country. We've been hearing about it for three years, ever since a report called "A Nation at Risk" was issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Experts and commissions across the country continue to warn that teaching is beset by a dangerous shortage of people, morale, quality applicants, minorities and decent salaries.

The consensus of these worriers seems to be that the only way to get enough quality people is to convert teaching into a high-priced elitist profession. Yet the data indicate that this not only is unnecessary, but actually risks damaging a profession that has always attracted people who hold other values higher than monetary gain.

Leading the doomsayers' list is a pending teacher shortage due in part, they say, to an exodus of teachers to higher paying jobs. How many times have we heard, "Half the nation's current teachers will leave their jobs by 1992" and "We will need to hire 1 million teachers in the next five years."

Both these statements are true, but are little cause for alarm. There are about 2.18 million public school teachers in the United States today. The annual turnover rate for teachers due to retirement, women having babies, teachers moving to different districts, or simply leaving teaching is about 6 percent a year and has not changed significantly since the early 1970s, according to William Graybeal of the research division of the National Education Association (NEA) and Vance Grant of the Center for Statistics at the Department of Education.

At 6 percent, about 131,000 teachers will leave the profession each year. Yet even with added demand for 50,000 teachers a year to meet rising enrollments, there is no reason to panic. We've already hired nearly 450,000 teachers in the past three years, based on NEA data, a rate approaching 150,000 a year. In any case, a 6 percent attrition is not extraordinary, according the the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which says that the annual turnover rate for all professional specialties is 10.7 percent.

Even given the gloomiest predictions, we should remember that the total number of teachers will have to increase from today's 2.4 million public and private school teachers to about 2.6 million in 1992, when hiring each year would have to be only a third higher than it is now.

The most oft-cited evidence to suggest a shortage of teachers comes from the Department of Education's Center for Statistics, which says that the number of new teachers graduating from the nation's colleges and universities might be only two-thirds of demand in 1992. This prediction assumes, the Center says, that the number of bachelor's degree recipients who are "new teacher graduates" will stay as low as it was in 1982: at 143,000, which was down from 284,000 in 1970.

But that assumption is based on a period during which enrollments in education courses were plummeting. There not only was no across-the-board demand for teachers, you could scarecely find a teaching job if you wanted one. Five years ago, we were talking about how to get rid of teachers to so we could make room for younger ones.

And before worrying about a future shortage, we should note that the projected demand for teachers doesn't come close to the demand caused by the baby-boomers following World War II and isn't expected to last more than a decade. Enrollments in public elementary schools are expected to increase a total of 12 percent between now and 1992, then drop for the rest of the century. High school enrollments have dropped 19 percent since 1975-76 and are expected to decrease until the mid-1990s, when the current blip of children gets to high school.

Even if we accepted the bleakest predictions, we would have no reason to urge the solution that appears to be almost universally accepted: putting our 2.18 million teachers on a financial par with America's 2.2 million lawyers, doctors, dentists, engineers and accountants.

Pay raises are held to be the answer, in particular, to the exodus of women (who have dominated teaching) and minorities for higher paying, more prestigious jobs.

The fact is that the proportion of blacks in teaching is the same as it is in the college-educated full-time, year-round work force: 6 percent. Some women are, it is true, going where the money is, but there are far more women college graduates in the United States to go around these days: 6 million women are enrolled in college today, twice as many as in 1970. Women make up about 75 percent of teachers in the 25 to 34 age group, compared with 63 percent who are between 35 and 44 years old.

The reality is that teachers no longer fare so badly in the marketplace. Given that it had a long way to go, the average teaching salary has risen considerably: An increase of 31 percent since 1981 is pretty impressive compared to an increase of18 percent for the average U.S. worker.

Still, some teachers, following their unions, say that money remains a major problem. So does a large slice of the public.

A survey conducted by the Gallup Organization for the National Education Association last summer indicated that59 percent of the public thought its local school system was having a hard time getting good teachers because teachers' salaries were low. When asked how much they thought a full-time high school teacher and a full-time elementary school teacher who have graduated from college and have about 15 years' experience should be paid annually, the public suggested about $29,000 for a high school teacher and about $27,000 for an elementary school teachers.

The average salary of a high school teacher in 1985-86 was $26,080 and for an elementary teacher was $24,762. The median experience for teachers is 15 years.

I conducted a survey a few months ago of 1,592 teachers. Given the option of making $5,000 more a year in another job (a20 percent salary jump for most public school teachers and 35 percent for private teachers), 62 percent of the teachers in private schools who responded and 47 percent in public schools said: "I would keep my teaching job."

Given the options of making more money teaching 12 months instead of the current nine or 10, or of teaching nine months and doing other professional activities for the remainder of the year, the teachers said hands down that they prefer their 9-to-10-month contracts.

But illusions about money and teaching persist. College freshmen and sophomores in the Southeast (one of the regions that has the greatest demand for additional teachers) were asked last year to estimate what they thought they could earn in several different occupations, according to a teachers' labor market survey conducted by the Southeastern Regional Council for Educational Improvement. The students overestimated the starting salaries of engineers, computer programmers and accountants by 17 to 21 percent, and underestimated those of teachers by 6 percent. The harsh reality is that there aren't many people making big bucks in this country. Of the 21 million full-time workers who have one or more college degrees, only 2.6 million (12 percent) earn $50,000 a year or more.

That 12 percent is the circle some are saying the 2.18 million teachers who are paid by taxpayers ought to be in. Tennesee's Gov. Lamar Alexander, for instance, said on "Meet the Press" on May 18 that U.S. taxpayers will pay $50,000, $60,000 or $70,000 salaries for teachers because "better schools mean better jobs." Giving teachers an average salary of $50,000 a year would mean that in 1992 we'd be paying $138 billion in teachers' salaries, compared with about $55 billion now. Politicians such as Alexander would have a hard time selling this to the electorate.

As it stands now, with teachers under 9-to-10-month contracts, their $25,000 salary is slightly below the median for males with four or more years of college who work full time, year-round. It's in the top quarter of college-educated women working full time, year-round. The problem with teacher salaries is not where they start, or even the average, but the fact that they peak early and generally have nothing to do with job performance.

When all the income in a teacher's family is combined, teachers come out well in comparison with the rest of society. The median U.S. family income is $27,048. The median income is about $47,886 for families whose head of the household has five or more years of college and works full time, year-round. That's about what it is for teachers' families. Four out of 10 teachers live in families whose income is $50,000 or more.

Given the chance to choose two or three out of eight options for what is most important to them on a job, only 51 percent of teachers in public schools and 33 percent of those in private schools in my survey checked "a good salary."

The most recent gloomy report, from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, contains considerable discussion about competing in the marketplace to win would-be lawyers, doctors, dentists, engineers and accountants over to teaching; as if a would-be doctor or lawyer would automatically be a good teacher.

The vast majority of teachers are in their profession not for money, but for all the reasons we hope they are. When asked what is most important to them on a job, teachers usually cite an opportunity to use their minds and abilities and a chance to work with young people, followed by appreciation for a job well done.

In a survey conducted by Louis Harris and Associates for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. two years ago, 96 percent of teachers said they were teachers because they love to teach. In last year's Metropolitan Survey, teachers were asked, "Have you ever seriously considered leaving teaching to go into some other occupation?" Forty-nine percent said "no," an astonishing number considering the job changes in the lifetime of an average worker. But it was the 51 percent who said "yes" who grabbed the headlines. Three-fourths of those who said "yes" reported the main reason that they stay is the satisfaction of teaching.

Perhaps we should stop comparing teachers so quickly to high-priced professionals. Teachers are more satisfied with every aspect of their lives, including their jobs but excluding their income, than are college graduates generally. They go to church or synagogue, pray and vote more than the general public, my survey indicates. They think the number one problem facing this country is "moral, religious decline" and that the main purposes of education today are to "teach students reasoning and analytical skills" and "to help students develop sound character."

There are numerous well-educated people of all ages in this country who would like to teach, although not necessarily for a lifetime. We need to get rid of some of the cumbersome requirements for entry into teaching and stop such ridiculous reforms as requiring prospective teachers to pass eighth-grade literacy tests in the name of raising standards. These so-called reforms are not only costly, but are a bigger deterrent to bright, would-be teachers of all ages than is fictionalized low pay.

We need to actively recruit into teaching the growing population of mid-career people and early retirees who have gotten their education both in college and in the school of life. And teachers need to face the fact that they really don't have it so bad in pay or length of day, week or year worked.

And if I were still a teacher today, I'd turn in my union card, gather up my fellow teachers, march down to the principal's office and say: "Let's talk about getting some other people in here to count buses on the playground, pick up trash in the cafeteria, and fill out endless bureaucratic forms. And, by the way, turn off the public address system so we can teach."

And in the meantime, the rest of us should get off the teachers' backs, let them teach, and then see what happens to student acheivement.

Emily Feistritzer, a former teacher who directs the National Center for Education Information, is author of "Profile of Teachers in the U.S."