Documentary “When It Breaks” Looks at Teacher Burnout
Written by Vocalo Radio on November 18, 2019
When It Breaks is the inspiring story of Special Education teacher Konrad Wert and his personal journey to avoid becoming another victim of teacher burnout.
Stepping away from the classroom, Wert turns to his musical side career as a means to tour the country with his family and engage teachers, parents, and audiences in a conversation about the current state of Special Education.
As opportunities arise, Konrad must decide how his service is most effective – as an advocating artist or as a teacher in the classroom.
Director Todd Tue is an award-winning cinematographer and director, Todd founded and runs Milk Products Media. He and Konrad have been collaborators on multiple video projects, since 2012. His goal is to “tell stories that blur the lines of entertainment, art, and activism.”
We sat down with Todd to chat about the documentary, advocacy, and music education in advance of the film’s screening at Logan Theater on November 29th.
Jill: Let’s get some background on you as a filmmaker, how did you come to the documentary game?
Todd: That’s a good question. I had gone to studied film at Eastern Michigan University. n. And not long after that. I knew I wanted to do production so I moved just outside Nashville. For a little bit, I started getting involved in the music scene there. Through that I met some people who wanted to make a documentary, and I knew I wanted to do stuff with music.
So we started this documentary called Seven Signs, and it was about art and music in the South. Then we kept going we made another documentary called Charlie Louvin: Still Rattling the Devil’s Cage, which was about the Louvin Brothers who are a classic country music duo. Documentary is just really interesting to me. I think it’s fascinating to sort of scavenge these parts that are available to you and and make this story out of those pieces … versus being in control of every single element of a film.
You don’t know what tomorrow will bring on any given shoot.
Yeah. Which is interesting. I’ve been making documentaries now in some capacity for more than 10 years. But I’m still fascinated when I walk into rooms and pitch meetings and people want to know what your narrative arc is. I’m like, well, we haven’t filmed it yet. We have some ideas, but it’s really up to you.
How did you become familiar with Conrad and his story?
I came to Conrad through his music … His stage name is “Possessed by Paul James.” I saw him in 2008 at a at a festival in Minneapolis. And, I haven’t found a way to say this that doesn’t sound cliche yet, but it literally changed my life. He’s a one man band. And I’ve seen a lot of that, but his songwriting and his passion on stage and his sincerity. I was just like … this is incredible, and it’s amazing.
I bought his records and the records are kind of rough around the edges, but the live show was just amazing. We started to become friends and I made some music videos for him. But we all knew that his true passion was special ed. And that music was a side thing, in part, because you can’t live on one income as a special education teacher in Texas.
We knew this scenario, full time teacher, part time musician. I always wanted to do some sort of doc or something about just him and his music. He’s very modest, so he wasn’t interested in that. And also who needs another documentary about a white guy playing guitar? Not to knock those films but it wasn’t what we wanted to do. So eventually, when he hit burnout and and decided that he had to leave teaching, even though he didn’t want to, he was going to try music fully. I said that’s a full story. We had developed a friendship over ten years at that point.
He recognized, I think, that his was a good story. He did not want to have a film made about him, but I think he saw the greater good.
What is it about teaching that makes it especially susceptible to burnout like this?
It’s a complicated issue, but in there are a lot of factors in there. I think there’s not enough preparation for what the reality of the profession is going to be. So one thing that maybe doesn’t get talked about a lot is I think, college Students who are studying the teacher track should be prepped for the reality of like, you know, this is not a 40 hour per week job. This is a 60 hour per week job.
I think, the other obvious ones of course are understaffing, lack of resources. There is an argument that when teachers go on strike, as they did here in Chicago, and with that there’s this concept of the greedy teacher which blows my mind. To me there isn’t there isn’t a figure high enough to pay our teachers. These people who spend almost every moment with our children, protecting our children’s lives and educating them.
As a teacher you’re doing paperwork and you’re handling emotional issues and then you get into special education. Yeah, there’s teachers who should be asking for more money. I think it’s hard to sustain a life on what we’re paying teachers, especially Special Ed, especially, like we talked about, in Texas.
You know, one thing we we found out in the film was that Conrad had made between 1/3 to 1/2 of his salary playing bars and selling t shirts. What he made teaching and caring for one of the most vulnerable populations in our country was that small. That is how little teachers are being paid.
I think that kind of cocktail of all those things is just prime catalyst for burnout. The turnover rate is like three to five years. Our film doesn’t have any answers. We raised a lot of questions. We have a lot of good conversations, and hopefully those conversations ripple out.
Now I don’t want to spoil anything, Todd, but I do want to know what Conrad is up to in the time since you wrapped the film?
That is a good way and I’m going to think of a very diplomatic way to to say what he’s doing without spoiling it. I will say Conrad is back involved with special education in Texas.
The family is back in Texas living there. Conrad is back involved in Special Ed. The boys are back in School. His wife, Jenny is still doing painting. Conrad is also still touring as Possessed by Paul James. So still needing that second income. He’s out on weekends playing shows, and he has a record coming out at the end of January. It’ll be his first record in almost seven years. So we’re very excited!
Tickets to the Logan Theater Screening on 11/29 HERE
More Information on the Documentary here.
Interview edited for length and clarity by Seamus Doheny