Outside the Newseum in Washington, D.C., high school students and their teachers check out a bright green RV parked on the sidewalk.
“What do you do, you just kind of bring your knees up?” one woman comments, eyeing a small bunk where passengers sleep.
Three aspiring teachers have spent the last four weeks in these close quarters, traveling cross-country. Along the way they talked to educators, policymakers and entrepreneurs to learn about the many forms a career in education can take.
“I’m being educated right now and I hope that we can educate other people and really change the perspective of what being an educator means,” says Nadia Bercovich, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts and one of the road-trippers.
The road trip is part of a national campaign to elevate the status of teaching. A study a few years ago by consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that most top college students simply aren’t interested in teaching, because of the lack of prestige and low pay. High school teachers make, on average, about $55,000 a year.
In a panel with the road-trippers, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged high school and college students to consider the other rewards.
“If you want to have real impact, if you want to have meaning in your life, I can’t think of a better place to do it than in a classroom,” he said.
But even those who choose teaching often don’t stay. Nearly half of new teachers leave the profession within five years, says Liam Goldrick, policy director of the nonprofit New Teacher Center. He says many don’t feel respected or supported at work. Tenure is under attack and performance standards keep changing.
“I think some folks want to make it a lot about compensation, and while that certainly is an issue and a concern, if you listen to what the teachers are saying, it’s these other factors,” says Goldrick.
Rafael Silva, a 21-year-old UCLA student, ended the road trip certain he wants to start out in teaching, but he’s not sure for how long.
“It hasn’t confirmed — and I don’t think this road trip was meant to do this — that it would be something that I would do for the rest of my life,” he says. “Obviously that’s not something that people really do anymore with careers.”
If he’s right, raising the status of teaching won’t be enough to keep teachers in the classroom.