Imagine if one of your former students (who was labeled “at-risk” as a freshman in your class) graduated as valedictorian, went on to Harvard, and eventually did a TEDx Talk mentioning what he learned in your class. That is what happened this past January when Daniel McCutchen did this TEDx Talk featuring his social and emotional learning class taught by R. Keeth Matheny, whose students call him “Coach Rudy.” Daniel would not tell his former teacher about the content until he could share the actual video so it was months of anticipation before the video was released. Keeth said it was one of the proudest moments of his life, watching that talk with tears in his eyes.

inspirED sat down with Keeth Matheny, creator and Director of SEL Launchpad, to talk with him about his work and one of the many incredible student stories highlighting the importance of SEL in the classroom.

inspirED: Thank you, Keeth, for sharing your work with us! We featured one of the students to come out of your program, Daniel McCutchen, earlier this year in our newsletter as an incredible inspiration, and he has written a past entry for our blog. We are all blown away by his work! You must be bursting with pride to know what a difference you have made in his life. What does that feel like?

Keeth: There have been many proud moments and frequent teary eyes watching my former students’ achievements. I have been so very blessed to get to teach so many wonderful students and share in so many beautiful moments, graduations, scholarships, and former student milestones. Daniel’s story is one that is especially close to my heart as he has overcome so many challenges and accomplished so very much. He is also one of the students who I have stayed in touch with regularly since the class.

Left to right: Matheny and McCutchen. Matheny presented his former student with an “honor roll prize” of candy and a gift card to recognize McCutchen’s superb grades as a Harvard first-year.

inspirED: As a national award winning SEL teacher, nationwide speaker, and author, you are very busy! What has it been like to be on this journey of connecting students to social and emotional learning in the classroom, and why is it so important to you?

Keeth: My mission is to do whatever I can to ensure all students get high quality social and emotional learning programming. I live this mission as a national model SEL teacher, a member/partner for many national SEL groups, a co-author and trainer for a leading SEL curriculum (School-Connect), and a very frequent speaker and advocate. I like to say that it is an exSELent mission! 

inspirED: It all began with your innovative freshman seminar class, Methods for Academic and Personal Success, or MAPS for short, at Austin High School in Austin, Texas. Can you tell me a little more about this program, and how it has affected the community at your school?

Keeth:  The class has had tremendous impact on my students, including Daniel, and Austin High School is now recognized as a model for high school SEL implementation. MAPS is a for-credit elective, year-long course that started for a targeted group of “at-risk” students and now has expanded to all freshman at Austin High School. In addition, it has expanded to many other high schools across the nation.

inspirED: That approach of a dedicated class is exciting and unusual, why do you feel it is so important?

Keeth: The work of helping students grow SEL skills is much deeper than is often realized. Helping students learn and practice emotional management, finding motivation and purpose, effective collaboration, and conflict resolution skills is deep work. This work requires time, explicit instruction and structured practice. Too often I see SEL implemented in a “mile wide and inch deep” approach. While this is better than nothing, it does not produce the kind of results in skill development or impact that we want from the work or that students need. I have found with this work that quality and dose really matter. The reason these student stories are so inspiring and significant is that is was a very high quality deep dive into SEL skills. They each had an average of 50 minutes a day of explicit SEL instruction and many opportunities for reinforcement and practice all over the campus. This approach produces incredible results!

I believe strongly that social and emotional learning is as core to student success as any core subject and should be treated as such with dedicated space, staff, curriculum, and support. I envision a world where Social and Emotional Learning is the fifth core subject and is emphasized as such. Can you imagine the incredible positive impacts? Think about just one skill, for example “disagree without being disagreeable.” What if every student graduated from high school having mastered just this one skill? For graduates to be able to passionately state their opinion without attacking or intentionally offending another person, and to be able to listen with an open mind to the opinions of others, even when they are different than theirs, is a very valuable life skill. This skill can and should be taught. Imagine the effects of just this one skill on our families, marriages, classrooms, schools, communities and world. Now multiply that by the many similar skills SEL offers, such as active listening, perseverance, goal setting, balancing tech with connect, mindfulness, emotional awareness and management, empathy, apologizing and forgiving and so much more.

inspirED: The Atlantic recently did an overview of the SEL movement that includes your class, titled “The Psychological Approach to Educating Kids”. What are you seeing in the education field that relates to the importance of psychology and SEL?

Keeth: Our world seems to need this now more than ever. A rise in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues in teens, not to mention highly-publicized violence in schools, has led to educators across the country and the world searching to start effective SEL programs as a proactive approach to the social, emotional, academic, and mental health of students. SEL is a major wave in education and research clearly points to a huge number of positive outcomes for classrooms, schools and most importantly students.

inspirED: Tell us more about your work in the field of SEL.

Keeth: The SEL national movement is supported by the leadership, research, and resources of two related organizations: CASEL and Aspen SEAD. I have worked with both organizations and am a member of the Aspen Council of Distinguished Educators. I feel very fortunate to work in a leading SEL district, Austin Independent School District, where there is a large team of educators, collaborators, and donors deeply involved in this work. That fertile soil has allowed great practices like MAPS and others to grow and spread. My work has expanded outside the classroom and district as I now spend much of my time traveling and helping schools and districts launch SEL programs. SEL is well-researched, and evidence-based work that is hopeful and critical for our future. The best way to build a better world is to better equip the next generation with SEL skills. The need is intense and the potential is immense.

inspirED: Thank you, Keeth, and best of luck as you continue in the work of spreading SEL!