Long before American Idol introduced music fans to Carrie Underwood, the quiet girl from Checotah, Oklahoma, had trouble finding the nerve to pursue life in the spotlight. In the December issue of PEOPLE's Country Special, Carrie credits her elementary school music teacher, Kathy Cooper, for giving her the nudge of confidence she needed.

"She was my music teacher from the first through sixth grades," Carrie tells the magazine. "Her class was the first time I actually got to be onstage and sing by myself. I guess she figured I could handle it. If she hadn't given me that solo, who knows where I'd be. Maybe nobody would have ever figured it out, including myself."

In the fourth grade, Carrie played Mother Nature in a musical in which she was given a sizable solo, leading Ms. Cooper to give the young singer a spotlight in the school talent show.

"She was always really positive about everything," says Carrie. "She never treated me special. We all got the special attention from her. Whether we were superstars because of it or not never made a difference. She just wanted us to love music."

Thanks in part to Ms. Cooper, 'Cowboy Casanova,' is Carrie's latest hit to make it all the way to No. 1 on the country chart.