9 of the Most Critical K-12 Pain Points and Strategies to Overcome Them

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By Michael D. Toth

What are teachers and administrators struggling with the most?

Instructional Empowerment (IE)’s Applied Research Center gathered feedback from educators in the field as well as top national experts on the most pressing pain points in K-12 education.

The following issues were some of the most common – but more importantly – these selected 9 pain points offer the most powerful opportunities to address the root causes of low student achievement, systemic inequities, and perpetual student and staff frustrations.

  1. Teacher burnout
  2. Crisis leadership
  3. Low student engagement
  4. Overwhelmed teachers
  5. Student subgroup gaps
  6. COVID-19 learning loss
  7. Low performing schools
  8. High principal turnover
  9. Ineffective evaluation systems

IE’s Applied Research Center team tackled each of these 9 pain points, offering practical tips, examples, and strategies in full-length articles. Read the highlights from these articles below.

9 critical pain points in K-12 ed: Teacher burnout, crisis leadership, low student engagement, overwhelmed teachers, student subgroup gaps, COVID-19 learning loss, low performing schools, high principal turnover, ineffective eval.… Click To Tweet

1. Teacher Burnout? Reduce Stress with Adult SEL

Research says that stress takes a heavy toll on teachers’ well-being and performance. It also affects student learning and well-being (Will, 2021; Opper, 2019).

The first steps school leaders can take in addressing their staff’s social-emotional learning needs are to create a foundation of trust and safety and prioritize equipping teachers with effective self-management strategies.

As a leader, when you deal with your own emotional needs (modeling yourself as a “mirror” for others to follow) and create opportunities for teachers to use SEL techniques to address their daily stresses and existing traumas (creating a “window” of new perspectives), you set your school up for success.

Education leaders can reduce teacher stress in the following 3 ways:

  1. Model empathy
  2. Establish a culture of equity and inclusion in meetings
  3. Create schoolwide structures for agency and emotional self-management


Examples of how to use these strategies: 3 Ways Education Leaders Can Reduce Teacher Stress Using the Mirror-Window Effect


2. Leading Through a Crisis? Better Support Teachers

In a recent survey, only 31% of teachers said their principal and school administrators were helpful in supporting them with the changes in work demands during the pandemic (Educators for Excellence, 2021).

One of the most powerful tools leaders can use to understand teachers’ needs and support their professional growth is classroom walkthroughs.

Why should classroom walkthroughs be at the top of your priority list? Walkthroughs help you:

  • Gain insights into student learning and work with teachers to resolve important and urgent issues
  • Track real-time data on schoolwide goals
  • Provide teacher teams with objective and actionable feedback that is not used for evaluation purposes

The following 7 best practices will ensure your walkthroughs are research-based, well-planned, and support teacher growth.

  1. Decide on a walkthrough tool
  2. Use research-validated indicators
  3. Establish a common language, vision, and understanding
  4. Establish your baseline, sample size, and frequency
  5. Maintain consistent walkthrough protocols and routines
  6. Analyze reports for root cause issues and trends
  7. Use an action board to create improvement goals and track progress


These best practices apply to both virtual and in-person classroom walkthroughs. More examples: How to Use Virtual Classroom Walkthrough Tools: 7 Best Practices for K-12 School and District Leaders

Only 31% of teachers say their principal was helpful in supporting them w/ work demand changes during the pandemic (Educators for Excellence, 2021). Are you doing walkthroughs to support teachers' professional needs?… Click To Tweet


3. Low Student Engagement? Motivate with Active Learning

The correlation between high student engagement and improved academic outcomes has a strong research history (Dyer, 2015).

But after months of remote learning, students and teachers report that student motivation and morale are significantly lower than they were prior to the pandemic (EdWeek Research Center, 2021).

It’s likely that teachers will need to find new ways to motivate and engage their students. Most educators aim for teacher-driven engagement, but the truth is, student-driven engagement can be much more effective.

The important difference is that teacher-driven strategies are highly dependent on a teacher’s experience level and personality, while student-driven engagement strategies rely on peer interactions and the challenge of the academic task, tapping into productive struggle.

The following 5 student-driven strategies can help educators improve engagement as students return to in-person instruction:

  1. Reserve more time for collaborative active learning
  2. Give students real roles and responsibilities
  3. Create structures for student ownership
  4. Monitor students’ level of engagement and make adjustments
  5. Increase the rigor of academic tasks


Examples of how to implement these strategies: Why Student Engagement is Important in a Post-COVID World – and 5 Strategies to Improve It

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4. Overwhelmed Teachers? Strengthen Tier 1 Quickly

Schools overwhelmed with behavioral, academic, and equity issues often unknowingly have a common root cause: weak Tier 1 core instruction.

Students who are subjected to just 1 year of ineffective core instruction often never recover academically – even when they receive high-quality core instruction during subsequent years (Sanders & Rivers, 1996).

In fact, weak core instruction perpetuates systemic inequity and worsens achievement gaps over time. Students become disengaged and discouraged and may eventually drop out. Even if students persist, weak core instruction leaves them disadvantaged in college and the workplace.

Here are 5 red flags to identify whether core instruction is at the root of your school’s struggles:

  1. More than 20% of students are not mastering grade-level standards
  2. More than 10% of students are placed in Tier 2 and more than 5% in Tier 3 interventions
  3. Students have poor attendance and behavior issues
  4. Certain subgroups are overrepresented in interventions and underrepresented in advanced coursework
  5. Classroom walkthroughs reveal that instruction does not meet the intent and rigor of the standards


More on how to identify and resolve weak Tier 1 core instruction: Strong Core Instruction: What it is and How it Can Address Inequity and Achievement Gaps

5. Student Subgroup Gaps? Increase Access and Equity

 Educational equity means every student has access to the resources and rigor they need at the right moment (Aspen Education & Society Program and the Council of Chief State School Officers, 2017).

It isn’t enough to say we want all students to be treated fairly. Have you taken the time to truly define what you want your students to experience and achieve, beyond closing gaps?

Creating an equitable learning environment starts with recognizing student strengths, giving all students access to rigorous learning tasks, and providing resources and structures for students to achieve those tasks.

3 example scenarios when students could benefit from simple, specific supports:

  1. A student who has high self-confidence but struggles with respecting others – Provide clear team roles
  2. A student who is strong in their communication skills but needs support with their impulse control – Provide an academic conversation tool
  3. A student who struggles with identifying their emotions or needs support expressing empathy – Provide a conflict resolution protocol


More guidance for promoting equity and access in your school or classroom: What is an Equitable Learning Environment?

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6. COVID-19 Learning Loss? Accelerate Learning

How can you be more efficient in the school day and improve students’ learning experiences rather than simply extending classroom time to make up for COVID-19 learning loss?

Teachers engage in as many as 1,000 interpersonal exchanges in a day (Jackson, 1990, p. 11).

A school acceleration plan helps align these separate actions and helps teachers optimize their time and create the greatest impact on student learning.

Here are 6 steps to take your acceleration plan to the next level:

In the classroom:

  1. Engage students as partners in learning
  2. Focus on rigorous grade-level, standards-aligned learning
  3. Support the gaps in learning with structures and supports


Across all people who support student learning:

  1. Tighten the connection between your intervention system and your daily core instruction
  2. Help tutors align with your core instruction
  3. Leverage your relationships with caregivers


Examples of how to implement these strategies: 6 Steps for Accelerating Learning After the Pandemic

Addressing COVID-19 learning loss doesn’t necessarily have to mean a longer school day. How can you leverage your existing classroom time and become more efficient while improving the learning experiences of all students? @Learn_Sci Click To Tweet

7. Low Performing Schools? Improve the Systems

There is a real disconnect between the purpose of a school improvement plan and its actual use.

According to a RAND survey, only 44% of teachers and 67% of principals believe school improvement plans change teaching practices (Doss, et al., 2020).

Oftentimes, principals take sole responsibility for implementing improvement plans and burn themselves out in the process, teachers don’t have a clear understanding of progress to the plan’s goals until they see the end-of-year accountability grade, and talented individuals become frustrated and leave, throwing the school into a panic.

What if we reimagined goals tied to what our students truly need, with more teacher voice and supercharged for positive change?

5 critical strategies missing from most school improvement plan goals:

  1. Distributed responsibilities rather than hero leadership
  2. Weekly metrics rather than bi-annual metrics
  3. Sustainable systems with documented processes
  4. Classroom walks and feedback
  5. Short, daily meetings for continuous improvement


Examples of how to implement these strategies: Why You Need More Than School Improvement Plan Goals: 5 Critical Strategies Missing from Most Plans and How a Systems Approach Increases Ownership Beyond the Principal


8. High Principal Turnover? Develop Instructional Leadership

Principals already had a tough job – and now it’s even tougher.

45% percent of principals report that pandemic working conditions are accelerating their plans to leave the profession (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2020).

As school leaders navigate unfamiliar learning environments, how can investing time and energy into increasing instructional leadership effectiveness make a difference?

6 strategies for creating a culture of continuous improvement that supports principal success:

  1. Design your instructional leadership teams with the right conditions for maximum team effectiveness
  2. Develop an instructional vision and common language
  3. Use a metric to objectively measure progress to goals
  4. Take action toward the vision with a plan and action board process
  5. Monitor progress to the vision and provide formative feedback
  6. Form a leadership community of practice with other leaders and take advantage of expert and peer coaching


How to make these strategies successful: Strengthening Instructional Leadership: 6 strategies to promote a culture of continuous improvement, close COVID gaps, and increase principal retention

45% percent of principals report that pandemic working conditions are accelerating their plans to leave the profession (NASSP, 2020). Check out 6 strategies to create a culture of continuous improvement that supports principal success.… Click To Tweet

9. Ineffective Evaluation System? Implement the Marzano Model

Many teachers and leaders are frustrated with evaluation systems that don’t align to district and school initiatives for student achievement, observations that take too long, and feedback that doesn’t result in growth.

A few of the top evaluation-related requests from teachers and principals include: evaluations that address the holistic practice of teaching, not just teacher actions; teacher voice in the observation process and an opportunity to share additional information with their observer prior to being scored; and evaluation that leads to growth (Superville, 2019).

If you want to make your evaluation system more meaningful, actionable, and useful for everyone involved, the following topics from our Focused Teacher Evaluation Model (FTEM) newsletter can help:


Next steps: How to turn your pain points into an action plan

No matter which of these 9 pain points resonated with you the most, IE can help you form a personalized action plan to bounce back from your challenges stronger than ever.

Contact our experts for a consultation on how to implement any of the strategies above in your school or district.


The Aspen Education & Society Program and the Council of Chief State School Officers (2017). Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Education Chiefs. Washington, D.C. https://ccsso.org/sites/default/files/2018-01/Leading%20for%20Equity_011618.pdf

Doss, C.J., Akinniranye, G., Tosh, K. (2020). School improvement plans: Is there room for improvement? RAND Corporation. https://doi.org/10.7249/RR2575.4-1

Dyer, K. (2015, September 17). Research proof points – Better student engagement improves student learning. NWEA. https://www.nwea.org/blog/2015/research-proof-points-better-student-engagement-improves-student-learning/

Educators for Excellence (2021). Voices from the classroom: A survey of America’s educators. https://e4e.org/sites/default/files/teacher_survey_2021_digital.pdf

EdWeek Research Center. (2021). Data snapshot: What teacher and student morale looks like right now. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/data-snapshot-what-teacher-and-student-morale-looks-like-right-now/2021/01

Jackson, P. W. (1990). Life in classrooms. Teachers College Press.

National Association of Secondary School Principals (2020, August 21). “Overwhelmed” and “unsupported,” 45 percent of principals say pandemic conditions are accelerating their plans to leave the principalship. National Association of Secondary School Principals. https://www.nassp.org/2020/08/21/overwhelmed-and-unsupported-45-percent-of-principals-say-pandemic-conditions-are-accelerating-their-plans-to-leave-the-principalship/

Opper, I.M. (2019). Teachers matter: Understanding teachers’ impact on student achievement. RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/education-and-labor/projects/measuring-teacher-effectiveness/teachers-matter.html

Sanders, W. L., & Rivers, J. C. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement (Research Progress Report). University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center.

Superville, D.R. (2019). 8 ways to make teacher evaluations meaningful and low-stress. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/10/16/feedback-for-teachers-8-ways-to-make.html?r=1314210797

Will, M. (2021, January 6). As teacher morale hits a new low, schools look for ways to give breaks, restoration. EdWeek. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/as-teacher-morale-hits-a-new-low-schools-look-for-ways-to-give-breaks-restoration/2021/01


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