Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday urged college educators to promote teaching as a profession to their high-level students, emphasizing the country’s need for a qualified and diverse group of people to lead the next generation of U.S. children.

Duncan, speaking on a panel at George Washington University, said the nation soon will need a large influx of new teachers and that he hopes qualified candidates will be vying to enter the classroom.

“This is a daily fight for social justice,” Duncan said. “We have three million teachers in classrooms right now. As the baby boomers retire, we’ll need one million new teachers.”

The event Monday was part of a recruitment program — TEACH — that is planned to extend to 21 college campuses to encourage high-achieving students to pursue professions in education. TEACH pairs the Education Department with national education organizations, teacher associations and corporations such as Microsoft and State Farm in working to recruit future educators.

According to education officials, 50 percent of teachers in pre-Kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years. TEACH hopes to attract top students who wouldn’t normally pursue an education career, particularly students in science, technology, engineering and math, as well as African-American and Latino students.

“We need people with the latest knowledge in classrooms,” said Bill Day, a middle school teacher in the District. “We need to bridge connections to bring a wider variety of individuals into the profession.”

Day noted that if minority students see a mostly white males as teachers in fields such as math and science, it creates the perception that jobs in those fields aren’t accessible to minorities, a problem Teach hopes to fix.

Duncan also said that the United States needs to shift its perception of teachers, citing South Korea and Singapore as examples of countries where teachers are referred to as nation builders or where students must be in the top 30 percent of their graduating class to become teachers. He said teachers also need to have incentives to work at schools that need the most help.

“We’ve shown a lack of courage,” Duncan said. “Ninety-nine percent of incentives are for talented folks to move to more affluent neighborhoods. We need to make it a badge of honor — a privilege — to work with kids who need the most help.”

Attracting top-level students will take more than describing the profession as a “reward,” as Michael Feuer, dean of GW’s graduate school of education did Monday. It also will take more money.

Feuer said the economic aspect of teacher salaries is a “significant” problem, adding that GW is working on programs to switch the economic equation for future teachers.

“We have to figure out how to make this profession a more lucrative one,” Feuer said.

Kate Gaskill, a GW graduate student, agreed: “We need to combat the rhetoric of being ‘just a teacher’,” she said.

Duncan did express some satisfaction with the current state of education, saying the trends are heading in the right direction but that the U.S. needs “to get better faster.”

Education officials hope that the personal gain that can be made from a life spent in the classroom will outweigh some of the other factors in recruiting intelligent, diverse people into the profession.

“If you want a more meaningful life, I can’t think of a better place than education,” Duncan said.