This article was originally published in November 2019 on

Recently, I shared the Everest statement of our social studies team. I'm not the leader of the team, but boy, am I privileged to be a part of it. This time, I'd like to share how our ninth grade transition team focuses its work.

Why Ninth Grade?

Every year of a child's education is important, but ninth grade performance is especially predictive of graduation outcomes. One reason for this is that even though the five key beliefs beneath student motivation are always malleable, they are especially so at times of transition. Since the middle-to-high-school transition is such a predictive one for the end of a student's K-12 career, there's a lot of motivational leverage at play during this school year.

What Matters Most in Ninth Grade?

Our team developed these pillars after lots of reading, lots of thinking, and one really good after-school discussion last June.

  1. Academic success, which we define as at least a 2.5 GPA or higher for all students and a 3.0 or higher for students seeking dual-enrollment opportunities in tenth grade.
  2. Social success, which we define as participating in some kind of club (our school has many student-led clubs), sport, or activity (e.g., hallway decorating).
  3. Plan for the future, which we define as a clearly stated articulation of the student's current, rough-draft plan for high school and beyond.
  4. Enjoy the process, which we define as laughter, working smarter not harder, and practicing good self-care habits (e.g., sleep, recreation, etc).

Critically, all four of the teachers on the team speak to the students about these pillars as we see fit in our classes. This means four academic environments — science, math, English, and history — where the same messaging about holistic high school success is communicated.

This clarity of purpose alone is powerful stuff, as it helps bring together what to most students feels like an incoherent school day.

How does our team stay focused?

Each Wednesday afternoon for 45 minutes, our team meets to discuss one of the four pillars.

On academic success days, we pull GPA data for all students and divvy up interventions for any students with a 2.5 GPA or lower. The intervention is so simple it's dumba moment of genuine connection plus an invitation to what we call Monday Academic Center (MAC), the one afternoon per week when all four of us teachers are available to help students in a relaxed study hall environment. As we're doing this, we spontaneously discuss patterns, craft theories, and share things that work. It's often earnest, amicable argument as PD. It's good stuff.

And from a “manage the pressure” standpoint, these meetings don't produce laborious work. We just take 30 seconds or so in the next week to check in with a quarter of our students who are struggling.

On social success days, we look at survey data completed by the students. These surveys ask students what they are currently participating in. When we see students who aren't involved in anything, we put them on the intervention list. Guess what the intervention is? A moment of genuine connection and an encouragement to try out a club or sport or activity that aligns with their interests.

On plan for the future days, we coordinate a series of guest speakers with diverse post-high-school paths. Each of us is responsible for bringing in two guests per semester. We draw from former students, local residents, and our own friends and family members. Eventually, we'll start tracking students' plans for the future via survey responses.

And on enjoy the process days, we do something fun. Once, we even left to take a walk in a creek. Not kidding. #humaneplusproductive

I hope this helps if you've got your own team that's trying to focus on high leverage work, particularly with students in transition to new buildings or settings.

Dave Stuart Jr. is a Michigan high school teacher whose bestselling book These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most has been read by teacher leaders around the world. He can be reached at