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When I first arrived in London, I needed to find my way across the city to the now former site of the Home Office at St Anne’s Gate. I didn’t have a clue about how to get there so I asked a member of staff at St Pancras railway station. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the London Underground. I was swept along by a torrent of people, all going about their business with a purpose, I however, didn’t have a clue where I was going. Finding sanctuary in a quiet eddy and desperately looking around I spotted a member of staff across the concourse. Fighting against the current I scrambled to where the member of staff was and implored upon them to rescue me. Thankfully the underground staff had all been briefed, not specifically about me, I should hasten to add, but about how by being super helpful they could increase customer satisfaction, reduce complaints and attract even more customers. And having explained my dilemma, I was very helpfully led through the ticket barriers, now struggling to hold back the surge, and down the escalator to the platform below. I was told to get on the next train and to get off at St James’ Park. Having arrived at my destination I became confused as to which exit to use and once again found a very helpful staff member who led me part way to the exit, where I spilled out into the sunlight a matter of yards away from my destination.
The following week I once again plunged into the torrent and confident that I knew which underground line to take I allowed myself to be swept along to the barriers and through, and then panic. Which platform and am I sure that was the right line? Once again, a beacon of hope shone across the dark morass, a member of underground staff. Once again, I was led to the platform in a super helpful way and got on the first train. But this time I didn’t arrive at my destination for some, I have to say, traumatic hours. The problem was the first train was not the train to catch, it was the second that I needed; I will most definitely have to complain about that member of staff being unhelpful.
This pattern of visits to London and assistance rendered by sometimes grumpy but always super helpful members of underground staff continued for some weeks. Often, I would stay in London for a week at a time before returning home outside of the metropolis at the weekend. During my stays I visited numerous police stations as part of my work and every time I used the underground, I sought out a helpful member of staff to assist me. Sometimes, if they rather unhelpfully simply pointed me in the right direction, I would set off and then return to them explaining that I didn’t understand their instructions. Armed with more information I would again purposefully set off and then duly return until the succumbed and rather reluctantly but helpfully led me to the correct platform.
Then in a fortnight, two things happened. Firstly, the underground staff went on strike and on arriving at the gates of St James’ Park underground station I found the gates closed. There were a couple of members of staff there, but they weren’t very helpful. ‘What should I’ do I asked, ‘Dunno’, was the reply. Now that was not very helpful, complaint forthcoming I feel. I didn’t make my appointments that day and the following day had to use taxis to get around. Much easier to use taxis you might say, yes but not really justifiable in terms of cost, my boss told me when I suggested I would forego using the underground altogether. After three days the underground opened up again but for some reason there were no staff around to ask for help. I became increasingly anxious and found myself avoiding the underground, using taxis at my own expense, and walking long distances. I was exhausted I can tell you.
The next week I ventured into the underground again, I couldn’t avoid it forever. I found a member of staff and duly asked them, in an almost ritualistic fashion, how to get across London to another underground station near yet another police station. Instead of pointing me in the right direction, which we all know by now is a rather fruitless, time wasting and unhelpful exercise, or super helpfully taking me to the correct platform, they took me to a rather large underground map on the wall. ‘This is where we are’, the very nice lady said, ‘and this is where you want to be’, she added. She then continued to explain how to use the map, how to follow the signs dotted around the stations, how to look for the signs before entering the platforms so as to work out which platform to be on and how to ensure I get on the correct train. I was nervous following her instructions as I made my way to the platform, but I got to my destination and I made my own way back, with help of the wall map of course. From that point onwards, I made my way around London on the underground with increased confidence, I wouldn’t say with consummate ease, but confidently. I made mistakes but because I knew how to read the map, I was able to rectify them and if I couldn’t I knew that I could ask. Of course, now that I drive, I use maps, I would probably have been pestering police officers and random members of the public otherwise and we know how the rare the sight of the former are on our streets. Anyway, I don’t think they’ve had the ‘super helpful’ briefing. Lately though I’ve been using my satnav, and sometimes getting into a right pickle. It seems you can’t beat good old-fashioned map reading.
What’s the point of this nonsensical tale? Well the clue is in the title. As educators we need to consider the purpose of what we are doing and how this will add value to students’ learning and knowledge. We can give students the answers to the essay questions, how to structure a particular essay, what arguments to include, what books and journal articles to read. We can supply them with reading lists that contain links to the books and journal articles, we can coach them to such an extent that their journey is in fact our journey, just as my journey to the underground platform was the staff member’s journey. We can repeat this many times over so that students are capable of completing that essay, but like me on my journey through the underground, they will need the same coaching for every piece of assessment and whilst they may complete each journey as I did, they have learnt very little and become increasingly disempowered and crippled by our helpfulness and their increasing reliance on it. Our jobs as educators is not to provide answers but to equip students with the tools to find the answers themselves. That process requires a willingness to learn, to discover and to take risks. Super helpfulness should not be an organisational strategy to ensure each part of the journey is easily manoeuvred and completed, it should be about ensuring that people can complete any journey independently and confidently. Sometimes by appearing to be super helpful we are simply being very unhelpful and disempowering people at the same time.
The other day I had occasion to contact Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and I did this via a web chat. My query was simply about seeking an explanation regarding tax relief. I compiled my question starting off with ‘good morning, I’ve had my tax code updated and am a little confused.’ I then went on to explain in a few short words where the confusion lay.
The response back was quite familiar, it would be to those that use web chat and quite expected, ‘Thank you for your patience, the next available advisor will be with you shortly. You are 7 in the queue’. Little was I to know at this stage, that my patience was about to be severely tested, not by the waiting time but by the advisor who, to avoid any embarrassment to the real person, we will simply call ‘Jo’. After eight minutes of waiting (not a particularly long time) I was through to Jo and greeted with a request for my details for security.
Once supplied, I was told that Jo would be looking at my record. Jo then responded by telling me that the adjustment in my tax code was due to an underpayment from the 18/19 tax year, explained how much it was and the fact it would be collected through the tax code. Now I should point out, this was not the question I was asking, RTFQ, I wanted to know about an aspect of tax relief and just to add to the confusion, the HMRC website tells me I do not owe any tax from the 18/19 year. The latter makes sense to me because I paid off the amount owed in 19/20. A little agitated I responded with my question again trying to make it a little clearer, as if it wasn’t clear enough. I added to this by asking if my assumptions were perhaps incorrect and if so could Jo tell me when the rules had changed. The response was ‘one moment’. Four minutes later I asked, ‘are you still there?’, the terse response was, ‘yeah, i (sic) am looking through the guidance for you’. This does not bode well!
Trying to be helpful, I responded by explaining the tax relief I received last year, and the fact that I ought to receive it this year, unless of course the rules have changed the response, ‘one moment please’. To be followed by ‘the 480 is from 480.00/40% = 1200 so its at 40%’. Now I’m no Trigger (see Only Fools and Horses) but this mathematical genius has me somewhat perplexed, so I pushed a little further to see if I could get an explanation of this. I ended up with ‘480.00/40% =1200 which is 40% of the 480’.
My patience wearing a little thin now, I asked to speak to a supervisor only to be told there was no supervisor available and ‘They will be telling you the same thing, you can call in to speak to someone else if you want’. So, I can hang up on the web chat, start another and in the lottery of numpties, I will take my chance that I might not get another Jo to answer my query, I think not. To add insult to injury, Jo had just previous to this provided me with an answer that was in fact the basis of my question, we seemed to have gone full circle (RTFQ). In desperation and trying to prevent my blood pressure rising further I tried to draw this to a close by pointing out the problem as I see it, prefixing this with, ‘I’m not trying to be difficult. I just want an explanation as to why …’. I followed this up with, ‘If you cannot answer that, then please just say so’. The response, ‘I have explained to you the best way i (sic) can Stephen’. Now that’s me told! Best not push it further.
I recall first hearing the term RTFQ when I was about to sit a promotion exam. RTFQ the invigilator shouted, before gazing upon my quizzical expression, ‘read the f*** question’ he explained. I frequently remind my students of this mantra before they sit exams, it is one that serves us well, not just at university when sitting exams or completing assignments, but in life. Although I’m not sure that RTFQ is something that Jo needs to prioritise whilst tripping through the wonderment of mathematical equations.
Or maybe, just maybe, it is a new tactic by HMRC to limit enquiries. I certainly won’t be calling back in a hurry.