Clifford Kwong and Amy O’Leary. Photo courtesy of Amy O’Leary

“My mother is the one who tried to scare me around from education,” Clifford Kwong says.

“Every time I showed interest in education, she asked me not to do it.” His mother, who had worked in education for decades, warned that his student loans would be high and his salary would be low.

Her advice: choose business or science.

But as a student at Boston College High School, to fulfill his school’s community service requirement, Kwong chose to work at a child care center in Quincy. “They told me I was a natural,” he says of his time there.

He didn’t think much of this feedback at the time. He was on his way to college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and he was taking his mother’s advice.

“I tried science,” Kwong says. “At the end of the day it didn’t feel like it was enough. Whereas at the end of a day doing community service, I felt great after working with kids.”

During college summers, he worked as a camp counselor at Ellis Memorial, and he get a job there after he graduated.

He went on to work with older children. In both early and elementary education, his approach was the same: help kids develop a blueprint for success by looking at where they are, what they love, and what progress they can make. For younger children, he says, “It’s getting rid of that phrase I can’t, and having them believe in themselves, telling them you can, you just haven’t done it yet.”

But Kwong also faced tragedies. Two his uncles died of cancer, and he left education and focused on his family. He taught his aunt to drive. He supported a younger cousin.

“I am a full believer that whatever is in front of us, it is meant for us to do,” Kwong says. “I live by this phrase If I can, I will.”

He got pulled back into education, working in his cousin’s after school program. He also taught English language learners at another school.

Then, of all people, his mother told him about PEG, the Preschool Expansion Grant, program. Another selling point: it was one of President Obama’s initiatives.

“I respect his decisions and what he has done so much that I knew that if he was signing his name on something, I wanted to be a part of it,” Kwong says of Obama. “I wanted to know more. And I wanted to know what this was going to do for the field of early education.”

Today, Kwong is a lead teacher at Ellis Memorial for 4- and 5-year-olds.

He had attended Ellis when he was in kindergarten and continued on in its after school program. His kindergarten teacher? Amy O’Leary, director of the Early Education for All Campaign here at Strategies for Children. He also remembers being a kid at Ellis and seeing Leo Delaney, who would stop by to visit his own daughter. Eventually Kwong realized that Delaney wasn’t just an Ellis parent, he was Ellis’ chief executive officer, and seeing Ellis’ leadership was inspiring.

As a teacher in the classroom, Kwong’s philosophy is, “I teach what I wish someone taught me.”

But he has also been profoundly shaped by the training Ellis staff have received from the Boston Public Schools (BPS).

Kwong says it was Jason Sachs, executive director of Early Childhood Education for BPS, who suggested “going deeper into the lesson.”

“I realized this was possible for everything we were teaching. If we go deep, we can expand on life and students can get it.”

One example: “A class is walking to the park. We’re on the sidewalk. There happens to be dog poop. So we say, all right, let’s move to the side and let’s avoid this. We’ll say what it is: There’s poop on the ground or there’s broken glass on the ground. We need to be safe. We need to avoid it.”

“Once we get back to the school, we talk about it. We explain that there are things in life that are good for you. There are things in life that are great for you. But then I’m going to talk about that poop and the things in life that aren’t so good for you, and how you need to know what that is. I might mention peer pressure.”

For Kwong, the lesson is also personal. He had a childhood friend who didn’t make the distinction between what was good and bad for himself, and he ended up on “a path I would never want to take,” Kwong says.

Kwong also praises BPS’ “Thinking and Feedback” protocol (click on “Focus on K2: An Integrated Approach to Teach and Learning,” and go to p.11.) This is a process for running group meetings where students can learn through sharing something they have made. There are five steps:

• Looking: the group silently observes the work a child is presenting

• Noticing: children describe what they see

• Listening: the child who has done the work talks about it while other students listen

• Wondering: children ask the presenter questions, and

• Inspiring: children say what ideas the work gives them

Kwong says the most powerful part of Thinking and Feedback is how it gets children to think. Feedback can be hard for some children to hear, but the goal is to teach them to take the feedback that makes sense to them or to just say thank you to feedback that doesn’t make sense. As children learn to listen to friends’ and teachers’ suggestions, they grow into making suggestions to themselves, “so they’re always giving themselves better ideas.”

Kwong has used the process himself, noticing, for example, a child who didn’t pay attention during circle time, wondering what the child was thinking about, and then asking him.

It turns out that the child wanted to learn about space, so Kwong made a deal with him: if the boy would pay attention at circle time and learn his letters, Kwong would teach him about the planets.

The approach also worked one day when Kwong was riding the Red Line, and a high school student stepped on to the subway blaring his music. Adults on the train began to yell at the teen. Kwong quickly looked, noticed, and listened.

“I knew I had to pull a teacher move, or things would get worse.”

He got the teen’s attention, apologized for the adults who were yelling, and asked the teen if he’d noticed a blind passenger who needed to hear the station stops announced but couldn’t because of the teen’s loud music.

“I couldn’t make him do what he didn’t want to do,” Kwong says of the teenager. But helping the young man notice what was going on around him, led him to turn down his music. It’s asking these kinds of strategic questions — of young children as well as older children and adults — that inspires creative solutions.

In fact, ask Kwong what he’s most proud of in his work, and he says, “epiphanies.”

“I love seeing that moment when you’re looking at a student, and you sense that the light bulb has turned on. Whether they’re counting, or they are learning to spell their name or rushing over to pick up a friend who fell down, it’s that moment when they have built their own independence and you see that you don’t always need to be by their side.”

What does Kwong want policymakers to know about his work? Well, actually, he has a question for them: “Are you willing to help?”

Helping, he learned from his father, means multiplying what was done for you. When Kwong’s father moved from the Philippines to America with the help of his sister, he promised he would in turn help ten other people. He challenged his son to do even more, helping 100 others, work Kwong has achieved at school and in his community.

To emphasize the importance of helping, Kwong points to a quote from the movie “Gladiator”: “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.”

That’s why his plan is to keep reaching more people and to keep helping them.