When a student becomes the teacher 

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

Against the odds, Carol Nottingham is keeping it all together. At home, at school, and in the band. 

A senior student at Midland Trail High School, Carol doesn’t just carry books in her proverbial backpack each day. She’s carrying the weight of the world, far heavier than most teenagers have to endure. 

Carol spent the last ten years in foster care, before being adopted by her foster parent recently. Her parents are currently undergoing a divorce. She graduates this year–and has scholarship offers–but isn’t even sure she will go to college. 

On top of all that, Carol began the year by receiving a text from her band director. 

“She told me she was taking a job elsewhere and wouldn’t be back as our band director,” Carol remembers. 

It’s not an uncommon situation across West Virginia right now, as there are multiple schools without trained band directors. Last month, I wrote about a similar situation at Pocahontas County High School. 

“My response to her was, ‘Who’s going to direct us?’” 

That would be up to the principal and the school board, if they had applicants for the job. But no one applied. In the ongoing teacher shortage, music and band teachers are rare. Especially in rural parts of the state like Fayette County. 

“I said I’ll just take care of it myself,” Carol promised. “I didn’t want the music to stop just because there was no one to teach.” 

Carol went to see her principal, Mr. Richard Petitt, with an ask. She said, “I know I’m not a teacher, but can I lead the band?” 

He knew Carol well and recognized her leadership skills, but he knew the situation wasn’t ideal. 

In the meantime, the Fayette County Board of Education hired Abigail Aldridge as a long-term substitute to manage the classroom. Carol knew her. So as she continued to persuade Mr. Petitt, she also began working on Ms. Aldridge. 

“I asked her if I could start handing out music so we could at least play for games,” she recalls. “I was praying every night I’d get permission.” 

Then one day a few weeks into the school year, permission came. Carol would be allowed to direct her own high school band with the support of Ms. Aldridge.

“It just clicked with the other students,” Carol shares. “I shared the news with them and they said, ‘Yes ma’am.’” 

Meet the band 

As I enter the band room to meet Carol for the first time, expecting her to be surrounded by her high school peers playing instruments, one thing in particular stands out. The band members are all…young. Not just in relation to me, but in relation to Carol. 

When asked their ages and grade levels, Carol says, “They’re all in 7th and 8th grades. We have about 20 in all. I’m the only high schooler left.” 

While all of her students came into band with experience, they also came with challenges. “Some of them had braces and injuries which meant they couldn’t play the instruments they knew, so I rearranged a lot.” 

Practically, that meant Carol taught new instruments to some students, recruited alumni to play other instruments, and found a way to make it work. They have played several football games, plan to play a Christmas concert, and will be going to ratings. 

“We started out rough,” she jokes, “but we sound like a real band now.” 

‘It’s a lot’ 

Teaching is a tough gig. For anyone. Let alone an 18-year old who is still a student herself. How is she handling it? 

“It’s stressful,” she concedes. “I’m worrying about college, a job, my license, home, and now I have to schedule our practices and pick music. It’s a lot.” 

Her family is very proud of her for stepping up to keep the band going, but she says they worry about her. “They see the stress and feel bad I’ve had to take this on.” 

But Carol immediately pivots to how rewarding she finds the role to be. “I love the students. They get to play music in the band, and that’s why it’s worth it.” 

Halloween surprise 

On the day I visit, during the middle of our interview, 8th grade student Abby Yates approaches Carol, full of excitement and holding a gift. 

“Here’s today’s gift!” she exclaims. Since it’s senior week at Midland Trail High School, the band has been showering Carol with gifts each day as the only senior among the group.

“Do you like my costume” Abby says, with a huge grin on her face. 

“Who are you?” Carol asks. 

“I’m you!” Abby responds. 

I ask Abby what it’s been like learning from Carol, and she says, “It’s way easier to learn from her. She connects with us. Having her as our director has been incredible.” 

Mr. Petitt, Principal at MTHS, sings Carol’s praises. “We lost the employee right before school, and Carol’s been the one consisten presence..”

He says he couldn’t have picked a better person to lead the band. “She rose to the challenge,” he says proudly. 

A bright, if uncertain, future 

Is teaching in Carol’s future? 

“Maybe,” she says. “I like working with kids, but it’s also stressful. After putting myself in a teacher’s shoes, I’m undecided.” 

Carol isn’t even sure she will attend college at this point. While she has been accepted into several, including a scholarship offer to play music at West Virginia Wesleyan, she says it’s too soon to tell what her next step after high school will be. 

“I have other talents too,” she offers humbly. “Right now I’m just trying to balance work and school. We’ve got to play this weekend.” 

Stay tuned to RealWV for updates. We will continue to follow Carol through her senior year. 

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