Kay Kilshaw interviews: Vincent Wongaiham-Petersen

Describe yourself in three words. 

(disarmingly) Engaging, (naturally) Curious, (hopefully) Funny. 

Disarmingly engaging is how I once spontaneously and hopefully, disarmingly described myself when asked to name one of my strengths during a job interview. I do believe that nothing motivates learners more than seeing somebody passionately engaged in them and in their continuing improvement. Top that off with a natural curiosity and a genuine interest in what my students do coupled with a quirky and sometimes dark sense of humor and I think I have an effective formula for disarming defenses – the perfect tactic to set us off on productive learning experiences! 

And for those who were a tad curious, the interviewer did find my answer disarming; we had a good laugh and I got the job! 

What are your HELTA credentials? (length of membership, how active, any position held, any proven skills – best cakes, discerning questions asked in workshops etc.)

I actually don’t even know how HELTA got a hold of me. I would probably credit or blame whoever it was that regularly posted interesting descriptions on social media of the HELTA workshops and seminars for bringing me into the fold. Once I got to know the wonderful HELTA committee (yes, it’s true!) and the equally wonderful usual suspects who visit these shindigs, I guess I got hooked. It’s been about seven years so far as a HELTA member and one could say that I’m now a regular fixture of these workshops/seminars – I’m the curious one (see above) who keeps asking those disarming (see above again) and hopefully discerning questions of the presenters. And did I mention that everyone bakes really good cakes, too? 

Can you describe your teaching situation?  (who, where and on what basis; freelance, employed, full time, part time?)

I grew up in the Philippines speaking three languages with English being the one I’m most comfortable with and adept at. But during my student days in Germany, I found myself teaching Tagalog (Filipino) as there was no one else who could or wanted to do it. Knowing that I would have it harder as a Filipino-Chinese English teacher in the German EFL industry with its prevailing preference for native English-speaking teachers from America, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, or Australia (did I miss one?), I couldn’t just start teaching English even with my level of proficiency and the experience I had had in teaching a foreign language. That’s why I decided to take the CELTA. It not only validated my credentials, it turned out to be validating as well, as I found out that I had already been doing, albeit unknowingly, what was expected of good language instruction. 

For a while, I tried the best of both worlds doing some freelance work on the side while working a normal 40-hour week for a company dealing with foodstuffs. No matter how tired I was at the end of my 8-hour work day, I got a wonderfully invigorating adrenalin rush whenever I taught at night. So I finally took the plunge in 2012 and went full-time freelance teaching. It was a no-brainer. And I haven’t regretted it since. I do mostly in-company classes but also CLIL classes in universities. In 2017, I co-started a business that offers English training and translations and added co-managing to the list of things I have to juggle around. It’s been a steep learning curve and there’s never enough time to do everything I’d like to. But absolutely nothing feels like work and I honestly feel guilty sometimes that I’m having so much fun “working”. But don’t tell anyone!

What’s the most rewarding part of your work?

I get to know interesting people with equally interesting jobs – lawyers, engineers, bankers, scientists, IT specialists, etc. And where else can one get immediate confirmation and appreciation of one’s work several times during the day? Some of my students have been with me for several years and it does fill me with pride hearing from them how I’ve played a part in their improvement. Andreas said in his interview (see below) that it gives him an “incredible buzz” to hear appreciation from his students. I second that wholeheartedly. It makes everything worth the effort.

And the least rewarding part? 

Freelance teaching has its perks (e.g. being able to say no) but it does have substantial financial drawbacks – no employer to shoulder half your health insurance premiums and state pension contributions and you’re not earning when you’re off sick. And then there’s the holiday double whammy – not earning any money while you’re spending money. But it’s not all about money, right? Otherwise there wouldn’t be any teachers left.

What do your learners say about you?

Apart from being organized (I’m told!) and knowing how to explain things well (they say!), I am told that my classes are funny and entertaining, and the minutes just fly by. But what stuck with me most was a comment once made that I always know how to make everyone in class look good and nobody has to ever worry about looking bad in front of their peers. This wasn’t something I was conscious of doing but has since become part of my teaching philosophy – nobody should look bad in my classes. Hopefully, not even me! Hence, the dashing bow tie.… 


What’s the best teaching advice you’ve ever received?

Take the time to take care of yourself and your own needs. Make a list of things you want to do that has nothing to do with teaching (e.g. a concert, three films, one whole season of Legion, a get-together with friends, some family time, a book, etc. within the next two or three months) and tick them off one by one. Otherwise, you’ll burn yourself out before you know it.

Do you have any wisdom to share with your fellow HELTA members?

First of all, the above piece of advice. Secondly, there are lots of other colleagues out there you can learn from. Freelancers usually work in a bubble and don’t have colleagues one can immediately ask advice from. And sometimes, things can seem daunting, especially if one is new to the business. But there’s always going to be someone who has been through the same things, so ask around. You’ll be surprised at the support and advice you’ll get. Finally, Continuing Professional Development (CPD). There’s always something new to learn and I rue the day when I wouldn’t be able to learn anything new anymore. So take the opportunities offered by teaching associations (e.g. IATEFL), their Special Interest Groups (e.g. IATEFL Business English SIG – BESIG) or local teaching associations (e.g. HELTA). And while you’re at it, have fun and make scores of new friends, too!

Do you have a guilty ELT secret?

Yeah! I probably don’t have a single clue as to what I’ve actually just been talking about.


 Who are you nominating for the next HELTA interview and why?

I nominate Wendy Pirie as our next interviewee because I’m really curious about what brought her to teaching. She has a wealth of ideas, has tons of experience and I’m very thankful for a piece of advice she gave me once that still guides me to this day. I think we could all definitely benefit from an interview with her.

You can contact HELTA on the contact page.