CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—Skittles, a rat terrier, sits in the back of a classroom in a converted closet made to accommodate her dog bed and a blue blanket covered in white dog silhouettes.
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports the 6-year-old black, white and brown medical alert service dog lays down with her ears perched high and focuses on fifth-grade reading teacher Taylor Dearman, her human.
Dearman, 26, stands at the front of the Kostoryz Elementary School classroom, like she's been doing since she was hired in the beginning of January, and goes over a lesson on special effects with her class.
The class of about 25 students occasionally turn to the back of the classroom to catch a glimpse of Skittles, though they know she is hard at work.
"Skittles was in all my (Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi) classes since I got her in Georgia," Dearman said. "I took a break from school to figure out what I wanted to do and that's when I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and I experienced seizures. But I haven't had a seizure since I've had Skittles."
It was after getting Skittles that Dearman knew she wanted to be a teacher. Life before Skittles involved coursework for the nursing program A&M-CC, Dearman said.
"I got to teach people how having a disability can be more about than what you can see," Dearman said. "I found my niche and just had a natural knack for wanting to teach."
After taking a year off to take care of her health with her parents, who moved from Corpus Christi to Georgia, Dearman returned home and began coursework to became a teacher, she said.
As part of Dearman's coursework for her Bachelor of Science degree in Interdisciplinary EC-6 Reading Generalist, she was a student teacher at Oak Park Elementary School, where Skittles remained at her side.
Since Skittles played a major role in Dearman's education, giving her the confidence boost she needed, Skittles was allowed to walk the stage at Dearman's commencement ceremony. Skittles even donned a black cap and gown and the university's traditional lei.
"She came to interview with me as well," Dearman said. "She even alerted because I was nervous."
But Kostoryz Elementary School principal Kelsie Morris was glad Skittles came along for the job interview, a decision Dearman was unsure of.
After Dearman was hired, the school gave Skittles her own identification badge with her photo on it. Morris said a schoolwide announcement was made to alert students of the proper way to behave around Skittles.
"I've been in her classes almost every day and you wouldn't know she's a first year teacher. She's a natural," Morris said. "The kids ask if it's OK to pet Skittles and they really have learned what a service dog is. (Skittles) is working just like Mrs. Dearman is working."
At the beginning of Dearman's classes several students ask if they can pet Skittles, or if they should wait until after class, a question that is posted on a bulletin board under Skittles' Social Contract, Skittles' own list of classroom rules.
Some of Skittles' other rules include letting Skittles do her job, using a soft voice and staying on task during class.
But sometimes avoiding looking at Skittles can be a little difficult for 10-year-old Jakob Putzel, who was overjoyed when he saw Skittles the first time.
"I was excited. I was like, 'Oh my God there's a dog in the class!'" Jakob said. "After class we can pet her."
Though students know not to bother Skittles during class, sometimes students find Skittles walking up to them after the dog senses they don't feel well.
"If we get stressed out, she'll come up to us and let us pet her," Taliya Porter, 11, said. "She can detect our stress level."
Even though seeing Skittles makes the students smile, they also smile when they talk about how much fun they have in Dearman's class.
"It's fun and exciting," SavannahFlores, 11, said. "She laughs with us, she makes jokes and makes it easier to understand."