• Washington Post

A High School Band Teacher Quit. Now, The Students Teach, Direct Themselves.

Casey Griffith
Members of West Virginia’s Pocahontas County High School Band with student director Hailey Fitzgerald, center, before their first home football game on Sept. 22.

On the first day of school this year, the principal of Pocahontas County High School in West Virginia dropped by the band classroom with some bad news.

He told the 38 students that the school had been unable to find a band teacher after the former teacher left over the summer to take a teaching position at a different school.

“I said that we’d had zero applicants, and since we didn’t have an instructor, we’d have to get them into other classes,” said Joseph Riley, recalling that afternoon in late August.

Then he gave the students a second option.

He still had money budgeted for the music department, Riley said, so if the teens wanted to keep the Warriors band going and teach themselves, the school would support them. Anyone who stayed would get full credit for the class.

“I told them, ‘You all know how to play, so just play. You can do this,'” he said.

The majority of students decided to take a different class during fifth period. But ten students – a critical mass – took him up on the offer.

“The band is important, it gets people pumped during football games,” said Hailey Fitzgerald, a junior who plays the drums. “Without a band, everyone thought the games would be boring.”

She and her bandmates also are close, she said.

“We’d played together for years – we’re like a family,” said Fitzgerald, 17. “We didn’t want to see it end.”

Band members who decided to stick it out nominated Fitzgerald as band director, and then the group enlisted two teachers at the school as advisers.

Math teachers Casey Griffith and Jennifer Nail-Cook agreed to help the students with paperwork, listen to them practice when they could and offer support and advice.

“They’re an impressive bunch of kids – from the start, they were really self-motivated,” Nail-Cook said. “We’re all very proud of them.”

During fifth period each day, band students practice the school song and fight chants, and they’ve learned to work together, Fitzgerald said. They also had to problem solve when they realized they had too many drummers, resulting in several band members teaching themselves to play different instruments.

The band now has three drummers, while the other members play tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, a clarinet and a trumpet, she said.

Bandmates came up with “Rules and Expectations to Live by” that they wrote down and posted to keep the class orderly and smooth, including:

Casey Griffith
The Pocahontas County High school band class came up with their own rules since they’re without a teacher this year.

“Instruments and supplies out and ready to play within 5 minutes of class beginning”

“Only play when directed, no arguing about what you’re playing”

“No food or drink (except water) in room”

“Instruments go home for practice on weekends”

“Don’t touch anyone’s instrument, don’t share germs”

By Sept. 22, they were ready to suit up in their maroon and gold uniforms and play at a home football game against Richwood High School.

Casey Griffith
West Virginia’s Pocahontas County High School Band performs at a home football game on Sept. 22.

“We were nervous about how it would go, but people really stood up for us,” said trumpet player Kaidence Cutlip, 14, adding that the Warriors won the game, 18 to 16.

“Everyone made signs for us in support of the band, and that gave us a lot of confidence,” she said. “We all felt like, ‘We’ve got this.'”

Miles Fitzgerald, 17, is Hailey Fitzgerald’s twin brother, and he said he played the French horn until he switched to the snare and quad drums this year.

“Having my sister direct me doesn’t bother me,” Miles said. “Hailey tries her hardest, so we do too. We’re all learning new things together.”

Although the Warriors don’t have enough band members to do marching field shows, they have been keeping school spirit flowing in the stands, said bass drum player Miya Johnson.

“I’ve been taking band since the sixth grade, and I wanted to keep the memories going,” she said. “Once we got through the hard part of getting organized, everything else seemed easy.”

The band’s latest performance was at their school’s homecoming game on Friday.

“When we do the ‘War Chant’ – our school song – that’s probably everybody’s favorite,” said clarinetist Jadyn Lane, 17.

“To see so many people supporting and cheering us on, that’s a huge motivator,” she said. “That’s when you know all the hard work is worth it.”

After The Real WV featured the band’s efforts to teach themselves, several school alumni volunteered to join the students in the stands on Homecoming Day and play their old instruments, said Riley, the principal.

“Ours is a rural school with 282 students – it’s the heart of the community,” he said. “Some of our kids ride a bus for an hour and a half just to get here. Everyone is really appreciative of these kids working together to make sure our school still has a band.”

West Virginia is experiencing a certified teacher shortage like many states nationwide, Riley said, noting that music programs are often in short supply.

“We’re still hopeful that we’ll find a band instructor, but for now, our students are making it work,” he said. “They’re giving it their all.”

Griffith said she often gets teary when she sees how hard the band students practice and how they work together in their classroom to resolve any issues that come up.

“I’ve known most of them for years, and watched them grow in confidence,” Griffith said. “I’m really impressed and moved by them.”

Nail-Cook said she stops by the classroom once a week to listen to them play.

“It’s incredible to witness the progress they’ve made on their own,” she said. “They all have huge hearts. Having a community is important to them.”

Years from now, Hailey Fitzgerald said she imagines she’ll look back on her junior year as band director with pride.

“It was never an option for us to quit – we all love it too much,” she said.