The website Rate My Professors, a popular resource that gives college students the opportunity to share honest feedback about their classroom experiences, features millions of instructor evaluations — some glowing, others quite scathing. One educator, though, has garnered solely positive reviews, with comments ranging from “he has the best sense of style” to “he is a true heartwarming inspiration to all students.” The teacher in question? An 8-year-old Labrador retriever.
Professor Chad, as he’s referred to on the Grand Valley State University campus in Allendale, Michigan, works as a guide dog for Melba Vélez Ortiz, a professor of communications at the school’s Frederik Meijer Honors College. Vélez Ortiz was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare and degenerative eye disease. Now age 51, she has only 3% of her vision left. The organization Guide Dogs for the Blind matched her with Chad when he was just a year old.
Quick to laugh and currently sporting a head of dyed rainbow-colored hair, Vélez Ortiz earned her doctorate in communications ethics at the University of Illinois. And Chad, whom she introduces on the first day of class as “Professor of Unconditional Love and Service,” has been a huge asset in helping her students express themselves.
“People fear public speaking more than they fear death,” Vélez Ortiz explained to Nice News. “So to have Chad come on in, even sitting in the corner, I could feel the stress of the students go down.” She added that many have confided in her that Chad helped them remain hopeful during periods in which they struggled with their mental health: “That’s how powerful he is,” she said.
But before Vélez Ortiz understood the impact Chad would have, she was wary about bringing a canine assistant to work with her. When she began teaching years ago, the 4-foot-7-inch Puerto Rico native was reluctant to tell her students she was unable to see. “The fact that I’m, and let’s never underestimate this, so short, that I have an accent, that I am a brown woman, that I’m blind — all of those are things that no college student ever expects to see when they walk into their class the first day,” she said.
Fast forward to 2016, when she was first paired with Chad, and she was then also dealing with the many distractions that pervade modern classrooms: “I said, ‘No, no, no. I am already fighting with every social media platform there is. I’m already fighting with video games and God knows what else. No, I’m not bringing a cute puppy into my class.’”
Ultimately, though, she was convinced, and set Chad up in a corner of her classroom with a bed and some bones. Today, he chews or snoozes as she teaches, his peaceful energy bringing a sense of calm to the room. “It was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Vélez Ortiz shared.
And though his title may be honorific, Professor Chad lives up to his name. “He’s the best teacher I’ve ever had,” she emphasized, later adding. “Chad has taught me so many things. Like, sometimes it’s great just to lie in the grass outside and listen to the birds.”
The good-natured Lab is getting older, however, and Guide Dogs for the Blind believes that working animals should spend their golden years off-duty, so the organization has asked Vélez Ortiz to prepare for his retirement this summer. She’ll be matched with another puppy to act as her guide dog, but because she lives alone, she won’t be able to care for two dogs at once. Luckily, multiple family members and friends are eager to adopt Chad, and she plans to see him as often as possible. She stressed just how grateful she is for the time’s she had with her canine companion, saying, “He’s not just my colleague; he’s my true friend.”
“My students learn so much from having someone like me in the classroom, active and doing her thing,” Vélez Ortiz explained. “Especially the students who are sitting there with disabilities thinking, ‘Wow, she’s really out here doing the thing. Maybe I can too.’ And seeing how Chad and I interact, it fills them with hope and with care.”
She summed up his positive impact in simple terms: “The bottom line is, Chad changed my classrooms forever, and for good.”