What stops people from doing the impossible? What stops teachers and their students from accomplishing amazing things? Is it fear of failure or rather fear that we may actually succeed? Is doing big things really difficult or is that simply something we’re led to believe? Today, we uncover some fundamental truths about setting and achieving goals.

Last summer, providence unleashed my thinking. I opened the paddock and released my wild goals. I sat down with myself and came up with the biggest goals imaginable. It wasn’t long before I came up with some pretty crazy notions. In the end, I settled on three.

The first goal was to serve my PE department with all my heart and strength. It was simple in it’s verbage but not simplistic in its endeavor. I wanted all 11 members of my PE department to feel encouraged and supported. I wanted our team to be unified and comfortable. I wanted our department to be as strong as it possibly could.

The second goal was to create a position, Health and Wellness Director, which would oversee, organize, and collaborate all aspects of health and wellness in our school community. The goal was to demonstrate that such a position is necessary, as health and wellness directly impacts all areas of school life, from parent engagement to learning in the classroom.

The final goal was to become the healthiest school in the entire country. This is the goal that would prove to be the most challenging, and this is today’s focus.

From the Mouth of Babes

At the beginning of last school year, my students and I discussed goal setting. They gave me some of their goals and I inevitably told them mine. I told them I wanted to make our school, GEMS American Academy of Abu Dhabi, the healthiest school in the United Arab Emirates. I was met with three different responses.


“Aren’t we already?”

Many of our students already had very lofty options about where they were in comparison to others. As I dug deeper and questioned why they thought so, it was revealed that they either “just had a feeling” and had no factual information to back it up OR they based their opinion of the school’s overall health on how healthy they were in relation to others. Basically, they either based their opinion on feeling over fact or they based it on an incorrect sampling of information.

As adults, are we any different?

For those of us who try to do big things, some of us either start out with an inflated image of ourselves and our abilities or an incorrect image of the world around us. We set a huge goal, and because we think so highly of ourselves we believe it will be easy to accomplish. Or we set a huge goal but fail to realize all the competition and challenges we will face in attempting to reach that goal. Either way, we are not basing our goals on the truth. Individuals who look at life in this way will often find it extremely difficult when they inevitably meet challenges because they’ve already convinced themselves that the path will be smooth and straight. Their failure will lead them to believe the goal was silly or unachievable in the first place.

This person’s movement? One step forward, two steps back.

But then there were those students who’s response to becoming the healthiest school in the country was the complete opposite of over-confidence.


“That’s impossible!”

Another group of students had complete disbelief in such a goal. A few even stood up in utter shock. After calming them down, we discussed why it seemed impossible. And similar to the first response, it came to down to their thinking.

Some thought it impossible because they had such low esteem in their own abilities. Whether through learned helplessness, no one ever pushing them to reach goals, or a myriad of other reasons, they simply did not believe themselves capable. Carol Dweck would call this a Fixed Mindset. They were fixed in their minds about what they were and what they were not, what they could and could NOT do. They would be no growth.

Other members of this response looked not at themselves but at the world around them. They looked at the sheer number of other schools with its millions of other students, and thought there’s no way we can be healthier than all of them. It’s the ‘odds are against us’ mentality. If this was a battle, they would be the ones who look out at the enemy lines, see they’re outnumbered, and retreat in the name of pragmatism.

Unlike the group who’s response was over-confidence, these individuals will most likely never even begin to set and attain goals. Their failure lies in never starting. We see the same in adults. “I don’t want to accomplish such goals. They are unrealistic and foolish. To even attempt such things is just a waste of time.”

This person’s movement? Big step back, slow step forward.

Finally, we have the third response. If this were Goldilocks and the Three Bears, this final bowl of porridge would be just right. However, it did not seem that way at first. Their response?


The final group of students, when broached with the possibility of becoming the country’s healthiest school, looked at me through seemingly cold eyes. At first I thought it was confusion. But as I allowed the goal to sink in and the discussion to delve deeper into the reality of such a lofty goal, I realized they weren’t confused or offended, they were thinking. They were thinking about what it would take to accomplish such a goal. They were surveying the facts in their mind. They did not see it as impossible, but they did not see it as easy.

Breaking Down Barriers

As we discussed the goal the students opened up about the reality of what a goal like this would entail. These fourth and fifth grade students (not me) eloquently summarized what it would take to accomplish such a task.

“It’s doable, but it’ll take a lot of work.”

“I think we can, but we’re going to need some help.”

“Let’s try it out!”

“How will we know if we’re the healthiest school?”

Arrow to the chest. The last question was the same question I had been struggling with. The biggest barrier I saw was exactly what the students brought up… ‘How would we know if we were the healthiest?’

“I don’t know”, I told them.

I thought I would have a revolt of exasperation. But no. I was greeted with a thoughtful ‘hmm’.

And so, with our goals laid out, we went about becoming the healthiest school. We primarily used the School Health Index from the CDC. We instituted a Health Summit where 3rd-5th grade students came to together to discuss and solve the world’s biggest health issues. We encouraged cross school engagement (i.e. high school-middle school-elementary school collaboration). We improved our fitness and monitored it throughout the year. We added health and wellness activities outside of regular school hours. We strengthened each unit and improved on how we integrated with classroom teachers and perfected them to make them as impactful as possible. But most of all we incorporated all members of our community to help make our goal a reality. And goal or no, we had an amazing year.

But did you win…?

This is where divine providence reaches in.

It was late February and the question remained, how would we accomplish our goal. Then one morning I received an email from a group called UAE Sport and Fitness Awards. They were hosting the first annual awards ceremony and asked if we would like to participate. They had contacted every school and athletic organization in the country and would judge each organization based on different categories. And guess what one of the categories was? You guessed it. Fittest School.

screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-12-42-24-pmWe submitted our proposal along with documentation of everything we had done this year related to Health & Wellness. The proposal was easy as we had already been working towards this goal. All I had to do was write down everything we’d already done. A month later we received word that we were one of three finalists for ‘Fittest School in the UAE’.

The day of the awards ceremony finally came and…

We won 2nd place.

At first, I was disappointed. But then it dawned on me everything that had led to this 2nd screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-12-42-16-pmplace finish. 8 months ago we had set out with a goal to be the healthiest school in the country. We did not know how or what we would have to do to get there, and now, I was staring down at a tangible measurement of a goal that was nearly accomplished. The cliche rang through my mind: “Shoot for the moon and you’ll wind up in the stars.” I was officially star struck.

Second place is not first, I know that. But it was still a big deal. The GAA community accomplished something big, and big things are never easy to accomplish.

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Want to do big things in your school?

Here’s how…

1. Get the Kids on Board

2. Get your Department on Board

3. Get your Administration on Board

4. Get the Parents & Community on Board

5. Persist & Persevere


Interested in setting and accomplishing some big things in your school or community? I’d love to talk about it. Subscribe to this blog, comment below, or feel free to email me at d.mcshain_gaa@gemsedu.com. Will you have the next big thing?