SEPTEMBER wears two faces. The traditional face - bright, expectant, idealistic - belongs to students eager to begin a new school year. It is a face that smiles out of newspapers every autumn, as photographers capture kindergartners boarding a school bus and teenagers greeting classmates in the hall.The other September face - sad, angry, disillusioned - belongs to teachers confronting the current realities of American education: salary freezes, contract disputes, and pink slips. It is a face that appears regularly in the news during the first weeks of school as teachers join picket lines and try to negotiate even modest increases in pay and benefits. This year the ranks of striking teachers have spread from Texas to Michigan and from Ohio to Rhode Island, affecting at least 100,000 students. Even after nearly 20 years of teacher strikes, there is something disquieting about these classroom disruptions. Like a worm in the shiny apple on a teacher's desk, the frowning faces of dissatisfied teachers mar the once-polished stereotype of dedicated educators more interested in personal satisfaction than financial rewards. Be a teacher, social worker, family counselor, and psychologist, the public seems to say, but don't expect cash-strapped communities to give you much more than lip service. Lip service won't pay off a teacher's mortgage or put dinner on a teacher's table. As a result, students risk being shortchanged as talented educators leave for more lucrative careers. Symbolizing the experience of many departing teachers is Paul Steenken, a math teacher for the learning disabled in Falls Church, Va. He reluctantly quit in June to earn a law degree after the Fairfax County school board froze salaries. With a master's degree and three years of experience, Mr. Steenken found his take-home pay from a $30,500 salary shrinking as the cost of health insurance and retirement benefits rose. "You're really getting a decrease in your pay," he told a Chicago Tribune reporter. m t ired of getting rewarded that way." That same kind of tarnished idealism is forcing day-care centers in some communities to close their doors because owners find it impossible to turn enough of a profit. One owner in the Seattle area calculates that to pay her staff and herself a "living wage," she would need to charge parents $950 a month per child - an amount most parents could not afford. Another disaffected child-care worker in the same area explains that she earned more money with a cleaning service than she did as a preschool teacher . Figures compiled several years ago by the Child Care Staffing Study show that wages for child-care workers averaged just $5.35 an hour - less than $10,000 a year. Then there is the matter of prestige, which once accorded teachers a high standing in the community. When researchers at the University of Southern California conducted a survey rating the prestige of various occupations, they found physicians, college presidents, astronauts, and lawyers ranking at the top. Clustered at the bottom were prostitutes, drug dealers, fortune tellers, and panhanders. Between those extremes lie telling revelations about American attitudes and priorities. Nursery school teachers rated a 55 - just six points higher than public relations workers. Elementary school teachers scored 64 and high school teachers 66, putting them on a par with accountants. Professional baby sitters achieved a ranking of only 29 - four points higher than bartenders and one point higher than taxi drivers. So much for the well-worn cliche that children are a nation's most important resource. In this so-called "service" economy, do things get serviced more diligently than people? The day-care aide who made more money cleaning house for working couples than caring for their children would be entitled to draw this conclusion. So would the aide in a nursing home, looking out the window at "lawn doctors" mowing the grass at wages far in excess of her $4.35 an hour. At both ends of life, vulnerable and precious human beings are turned over to nurturers asked to nurture with competence and love - but on the cheap. If the bottom line is the bottom line in a culture where money measures success, what awful and unambiguous statement does it make that we do not put our money where we say our heart is?