Mallard School

“Always try to improve the product or the experience. That is our starting point every day.”

 { Excerpt of Transcript of Ben Scholtz’s talk at Unitarian Church}

We moved Mallard from its original location on Holly Street to Railroad Avenue in 2008, which was a big undertaking. The shop doubled in size. After a few years of growth, I found my self with free time on my hands.

I wanted to involve my staff in reading poetry, so instead of going back to school, I thought let’s hire professors and do classes at the shop as kind of a benefit. It would be optional, and everything would be covered: the teachers would be paid, the books would be bought, all you had to do was show up.

The first thing that I learned was that what I was proposing was kind of a scary prospect for the teachers. You know, that college professors – folks who have been teaching for years getting up in front of hundreds of students – this prospect of come on down to the shop, I’ve got this group of people who just want to learn, stepping outside of that familiar context… Bob Keller was the first person who was brave enough to say absolutely, I’ll do it.

And the reason I know it was a matter of bravery is because once we’d done a couple, people were like okay, that sounds good. Before when I’d ask them if they wanted to teach these classes, they’d say, Oh, I’m working on a book or this is a tough quarter. Talk to me in six months or a year. Once we’d done a couple and it works, they’d say, Okay, that sounds good.

We’ve done about 20 of those over a four year period. It’s hard to find a time when everyone can do it because we are open a lot. Originally I thought we’d do two at a time, and you just scale back and scale back. Doing one class is hard enough. When we do it, typically about half the staff participates so everyone gets a chance to do it.

I’ve had comments from employees saying it was the biggest impact on interacting with my fellow workers. It made it easier to figure out how to do things together. It made it easier to train somebody new in a skill that I have. By the way, the instructions to the teachers were it doesn’t have to be work related. The subjects were usually literature, philosophy, history, music. Just represent your discipline and give people a good experience of what it means to study that discipline was the assignment.

I started a little more informally working with staff, looking at literature and essays. So, if you had a job interview this summer at Mallard, you would have been asked to look at samples of literature and talk about them. Employees, once they have been hired, meet about once a week, half the time talking about their work experience is going, and half talking about and looking at some short essays.

What do we read? The first three months of this year (2012) this staff group had a list of activities: we watched movies, like The Cruise, which is a documentary about a tour bus guide in New York City. We watched Dog Town and Z Boys, which is a documentary about the early days of skateboarding, and The Parking Lot Movie. We read On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion, which is my favorite short pieces of literature to use with staff. Add to that a couple essays by Richard Hugo, plus some of his poetry. We read a little bit by Robert Stevens, a little bit by Robert Lowell, three essays by Emerson, a poem by Joe Silano, “Poetry is the Art of Not Succeeding”. (I always like to start with that in the workplace.)

So that’s an example of the content of Mallard School over a couple of months. The more I do it the more I want to do it. One goal would be that in a 40 hour week, 5% is two hours, so ideally every employee spends 5% of their work week in some kind of reflective discussion with their co-workers and me about material that is generally in the category of thinking of things like this.

Mallard School represents a faith in process, an experimental construction of a quality liberal arts education.

Now I have a group of people who are more experienced staff, who deal with decision making, also meeting once a week, as a mix of talking about work and reading materials related to decision making. We usually start new staff with learning how to analyze complex writing, talk about it and write about it. The subject doesn’t always matter. Expressing ideas to your peers and being heard includes learning how to gather intellectual energy into complex projects with your peers, which is relatable to work. My objectives in Mallard School may be no more grandiose than other liberal arts experiences, but I have the faith in process, and working toward humble objectives has profound impact on the way that people function in the world.

For more information on Meaningful work, check out this Evergreen University article : http://www.evergreen.edu/magazine/2011spring/sweet.htm