Possessed By Paul James Advocates for Education Reform Through Music

Folk singer and special education teacher Konrad Wert talks the importance of the stage as a platform for activism.

The journey of any musician begins with a teacher, and these educators of meter and mechanics may come in a variety of forms. Both my Mom and Pop sang and played instruments in our small Mennonite community of People’s Chapel in Immokalee, Florida. There, my older sister and I would share hymns with the congregation, Dotty Mae Wert (that’s Mom) would play the piano, and ol’ Pop Melvin James Wert would bellow out his fluctuating baritone. There was also Ms. Rock, my first strings instructor in the fourth grade of Lehigh Acres Elementary; Ms. Stillwell, known for her passion and for occasionally chucking rosin at us when we would rush or drag the tempo; and finally Mr. Ferzazio in high school, known for an unusual amount of body hair.  

By the age of 17, I was playing the violin, double bass, guitar, and viola. My adolescent journey as the overweight “Amish” kid with coke bottle glasses led me to the common practice of escaping into music. It became a vital outlet, and soon the angst-driven songwriting began with hooks such as, “Baby they’re so cruel, baby they’re so cruel, they always try and cut you down… You’re acting like the fool and all you wanna do is tear them, tear them suckers down… Tear them tear them tear them down… Ya ya ya yaaaaa.”  

Life became the teacher. Experiences good, bad, and ugly became the curriculum of expression. And now, as a 43 year-old father, husband, musician, and special education school teacher, life’s twists and turns continue while music remains steadfast as our saving grace. 

This equation of instructor and student has so many parallels in life. It’s a symbiotic relationship where the teacher has a desire to advocate for the young through instruction and learning, while the student benefits from such practices and shared experiences. It’s very similar to the relationship between the farmer and their “crop in the field.” We use this analogy a good bit on stage when sharing our convictions and concerns regarding the state of public education and how that affects the rights of teachers, students, and families. 

As teachers, or farmers, we are daily feeding our students with information. We’re ensuring they’re growing as human beings both academically and socially. We’re overseeing their quality of health, both physical and mental. We are advocating for their future in hopes they thrive beyond our classroom walls. But imagine how challenging it would be to grow, say, a healthy field of turnip greens with limited access to resources like irrigation, healthy soil, and means to harvest. Simply put, when we neglect the farmer we risk losing the crop. When we neglect the teacher, we risk losing the student. 

There is an incredible power we hold as musicians when performing. We are literally paid to share our thoughts through melodies and song. It provides us the opportunity to challenge, inspire, and engage one another simply by creating sound and putting forth ideas. The similarities of being an effective educator and performer are countless. Thus, the question I feel we must ask ourselves is: How and with what intent will we share our time when “teaching” one another through music and live performance?

Granted, I understand the premise that a Friday night outing to hear your favorite band is no place for political or social argument involving public education reform. However, I would think when societal needs become dire, affecting our sociological and cultural development, if the conviction is there one should lift their voice be it whatever avenue. In essence, I believe you can both perform effectively and still bring attention to such concerns mentioned. I’ve been extremely lucky to find that balance between advocating in the classroom as a SPED teacher, while also advocating for students’ and teachers’ rights from the stage as a musician.  

The beauty of this role, is that you can directly affect positive change in a young person’s life through classroom and community interventions, while also hoping to inspire peers and fellow teachers on a Saturday night with the same advocacy. What I like to imagine is that this manner of thinking creates an even greater ripple effect of change. For example, we consistently encourage our audiences to volunteer at their local elementary, middle, or high schools by saying, “Gather with friends at your local pub, discuss your availability, have a round of beer, laugh and commit to knowing you’re helping a child in need, thus helping your community. Go volunteer that week or the next, follow up as a group for another round of beers and share your experiences.” It’s not how often you can do it, but rather how many of your pals can you get to do it with you. Then you have something to share not only with students, but with one another. You create the ripple.

I believe that it is very much our responsibility in helping one another, be it a child or a middle-aged fella down on his luck. I believe that the role of any teacher is to commit themselves to sharing joy, knowledge, and opportunity with those willing, and unwilling, to listen. I believe the mediums and expression of music are the closest acts we have of living magic and wonder. It transcends our emotions and life direction if we let it. Combining these two powerful forces in addressing the problems we face as a community seems obvious. By lifting our voice and joining in on the chorus, we are committing ourselves to something better. We hear the activism within a song and feel the melody in our hearts. We recognize that music is calling us all to be teachers of sorts, willing to share ourselves for the betterment of another. 

(Photo Credit: George Blosser)

Best known by his stage name, Possessed By Paul James, Konrad Wert is a Golden Apple-winning special education teacher, activist, and songwriter. After gaining recognition from NPR, The New York Times, CMT, and MTV for his celebrated live performances and Billboard-charting breakout release (2013’s There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely), Wert is returning with As We Go Wandering, out January 31, 2020. As We Go Wandering digs in deep to call out truth and hope, drawing attention to issues of poverty and violence in public education. Flowing from the dual streams of Wert’s Mennonite background and his time in the Austin punk scene, As We Go Wandering is a juxtaposition, a folk album for 2020 tending a warm light of hope in the dark cold of winter, where peace, rest, and movement dance hand in hand.

(Photo Credit: George Blosser)