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  • Writer's pictureDr. Sue Chapman

The Power of Moments in Schools:Design Defining Moments to Inspire and Sustain Your School All Year

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

Pic of book and quote from Chip and Dan Heath

What are defining moments and why are they important?

I vividly remember the first time a parent thanked me for teaching her child. I can recall where I was standing, what the mother and her daughter looked like, and most importantly how it made me feel. Like many teachers, my first year of teaching was challenging and I frequently questioned whether I had made the right choice in becoming a teacher. But in that moment, I knew I was meant to be a teacher and that I would learn how to do this important work well.

Some life moments inspire us and give us new perspectives. According to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of The Power of Moments, “We all have defining moments in our lives – meaningful experiences that stand out in our memory” (2017, p. 4). Many of these moments happen by chance – we meet someone who ends up becoming our soulmate or treasured friend, a mentor helps us discover an interest that leads to a lifelong passion, we experience a moment of insight that causes us to reflect deeply on our core beliefs. We don’t, however, need to wait for peak experiences to spontaneously happen. According to the Heath brothers, “We can be the designers of moments that deliver elevation and insight and pride and connection” (p. 266).

The Recipe for Creating Defining Moments

Based on their research and identification of the characteristics of peak human experiences, the Heath brothers offer a recipe for creating transformative moments in our work and personal lives. According to Chip and Dan Heath, defining moments have at least one of these key elements.

Key elements of defining moments

We can apply this recipe in designing exceptional professional learning experiences and events that strengthen school culture. We can create moments that grow our collective resilience and sustain us in challenging times. This recipe empowers us to intentionally plan and orchestrate shared experiences that generate pride, inspire insight, and celebrate the work we do together as educators.

A Defining Moment for New Teachers

Imagine the first-day-of-teaching experience described below. Consider what this experience represents to this novice teacher and how she might draw on these initial feelings and this mindset during the tough days that are part of every teacher’s first year of teaching.

As she arrives in her classroom on the first day of school, Ms. Estrada finds a bright bunch of balloons tied to the doorknob and a “Welcome to our school!” card signed by the entire school staff on her desk. Ms. Estrada’s mentor stops by with a bottle of water and an energy bar. “Congratulations on your first day as a teacher!” she says. “Let me help you get ready for the day.” As Ms. Estrada and her mentor work, the mentor invites Ms. Estrada to talk about her reasons for becoming a teacher and her hopes for the year. Students begin to arrive. The mentor waves goodbye, telling Ms. Estrada to enjoy this milestone day in her teaching career and her first day with her new students.

Later in the morning, the principal stops by to say hi and to talk to Ms. Estrada’s students. She tells the students that Ms. Estrada has spent years preparing to be their teacher. They are visibly proud that Ms. Estrada has already demonstrated how much she cares about them through her commitment and effort. Throughout the day, other teachers pop into the classroom to welcome Ms. Estrada to the school. As lunch time approaches, Ms. Estrada’s mentor brings her a special boxed lunch and invites Ms. Estrada to name three things from the morning that made her smile. In the afternoon, the P.E., art, and music teachers make the class giggle with a surprise performance of a welcome song they have written just for Ms. Estrada.

At the end of the day, Ms. Estrada’s grade-level team brings a plate of cupcakes to her room and spends a few minutes chatting to show Ms. Estrada she is a valued part of their team. Afterwards, as Ms. Estrada tidies the classroom and prepares for the next day, her mentor again assists with simple tasks and invites Ms. Estrada to talk about highlights of the day. Ms. Estrada leaves school thinking, “My colleagues value me and will support me. My work as a teacher matters and I will make a positive difference in my students’ lives.”

A teacher’s first day in her chosen career sets the tone for her relationship with colleagues and signals her place in the school organization. This milestone event is worth celebrating! And celebrations like this benefit the entire school community. The planning and execution of a special first-day-of-teaching experience reminds other teachers of their reasons for choosing to be educators. It helps to build school culture and elevates the teaching profession.

Take a minute to look back at the Key Elements of Defining Moments and notice how they were used to design this first-day-of-teaching experience. You can apply this same recipe to create peak experiences that enrich the experience of school for all members of the school community.

Defining Moments to Strengthen School Culture and Build Resilience

The absence or neglect of peaks is particularly glaring in organizations – from churches to schools to businesses – where relentless routines tend to grind them down from peaks to bumps.

~ Chip and Dale Heath, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

We rely on routines to ensure that our schools function efficiently and effectively. However, this reliance on routines sometimes causes us to forget the importance of peak experiences for personal and organizational wellbeing. Chip and Dan tell us that we can boost our collective mood, create a more positive school culture, and build our stamina and resilience by intentionally and strategically creating peak experiences for teachers and staff.

You’re likely familiar with the diagram below depicting a new teacher’s emotional states across the school year.

All teachers and administrators go through these emotional ups and downs. Teacher appreciation expert Amber Teamann refers to the months of October and February as “the armpits of the school year.” (To tap into Amber’s expertise on school culture, see below.) How might we use the Heath brothers’ recipe to create experiences that remind teachers that the work they do matters during the most challenging months of the year?

Exercise 1

Choose a tradition or event that is already part of your school’s or team’s culture. Use the Key Elements of Defining Moments to make it even more meaningful and memorable.

Exercise 2

Teaching is hard work and can be emotionally challenging. We need all teachers to remember that they make an important difference in their students’ lives. We also want teachers to know that they are valued and cared about by the school community.

For each month of the school year, plan one special event or experience for teachers that communicates these important messages.

Target a specific moment and then challenge yourself: How can I elevate it? Spark insight? Boost the sense of connection?

~ Chip and Dale Heath, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

Idea for Back-to-School

In a team or faculty meeting at the start of the school year, ask teachers to reflect on, journal about, and/or discuss the following prompts:

  • How many students have you taught in your entire teaching career?

  • When will you teach your 100th (or 1000th student)? Why is this milestone important to you? To the world?

  • Randomly pick the name of one of the students who will be in your class this year. What impact do you hope to have on this child’s life?

  • Why does teaching matter? Why, specifically, does it matter that you have chosen to be a teacher?

Why don’t we celebrate teachers for their 1,000th student taught? ~ Chip and Dale Heath, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

Idea for Back-to-School

  • Show Dan Heath’s four-minute video Is Your School All Practice and No Game? to teachers at an early faculty meeting.

  • Share the Elements of Defining Moments with teachers and then allow grade-level teams to brainstorm ways they can apply these elements to their teaching.

  • Ask each team to share out one idea.

What if we could design an academic experience [for students] that was as memorable as prom?

~ Chip and Dale Heath, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

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Chip and Dan Heath offer this challenge to all of us: If you knew you could make a positive difference in someone’s life – that you could create a memory for them that would last for years – and it would take only a trivial amount of time on your part, would you do it? (p. 158).

The science of designing memorable and meaningful moments can help education leaders improve the experience of school for teachers and students and support us in helping members of our school communities see and become their best selves.

Listen to a Podcast by Dan Heath about how to improve the experiences of students, teachers, and administrators in schools by creating defining moments.

​Read more about ways to help teachers know they are appreciated throughout the year in this blog post about Amber Teaman, author of Lead with Appreciation: Fostering a Culture of Gratitude.


Sue Chapman is a professional learning consultant and author of MathVentures: 33 Teacher-Coach Investigations to Grow Students as Mathematicians. Learn more about her at and connect with her on Twitter at @SueChapmanLearn.

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