When Am I Ever Gonna Use This?

The truth is that most of us will never use the myriad of math facts and algorithms in our post-school lives. However, that does not mean that math does not have some valuable lessons for us.
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"When am I ever gonna use this?" As an eighth-grade algebra teacher, I hear this refrain at least once a week. It's a difficult question to answer. I mean, when is the last time that your employer asked you to factor a polynomial or prove two polygons congruent? The truth is that most of us will never use the myriad of math facts and algorithms in our post-school lives. However, that does not mean that math does not have some valuable lessons for us. The following are lessons that can be learned in an algebra classroom and applied in your life. No calculator required.


Pencils come with erasers for a reason. Mistakes in a math classroom are inevitable. In fact, they are beneficial, as they often uncover misconceptions and maladaptive beliefs. We often believe that we must write our lives in ink and that mistakes permanently mar us. We try to hide them, turn our heads in shame. There is always a lesson in every error. Rather than crossing out the mistake, examine it and learn from it.

Growth at the Edge

I always want my students to be just slightly uncomfortable; I push them a little beyond their comfort zone because this is where the learning occurs. We don't all have algebra teachers following us around in life, but we can still push ourselves past our self-imposed boundaries. Growth occurs at the edge of comfort and panic. Find that space and embrace it.

Take Risks

I can do anything with a student who is willing to try. I have respect for those who will volunteer even when they are unsure of their answer. They have learned that taking risks can bring reward in the form of a correct answer, a deeper understanding, or the respect of their peers. Life is no different. If you never risk anything, you will never gain anything either. Don't be afraid to raise your hand.

Break It Down

In algebra, students are presented with complex problems. One of the first skills they learn is to break a large problem into a series of simpler ones, focusing on one step at a time. When you feel overwhelmed in life by what seems to be an insurmountable obstacle, try breaking it into manageable tasks. You might just be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Eliminate the Unnecessary

"Six-year-old Suzy has four apples and 5-year-old Bobby has two. How many apples do they have together?" It's pretty clear that this example has extraneous information, clutter that can be ignored without detracting from the answer. Examine your life. Do have unnecessary clutter that you can eliminate? Get rid of it and you will find clarity in what remains.

"See" the Effect

I train students to anticipate the effect of a step in a problem before they make it. I want their minds to always be slightly ahead of their pencil as they "see" the impact of a decision prior to carrying it out. This is beneficial in the world at large as well as it encourages thoughtful and deliberate decisions. If you understand effect, you can change the cause.

Think Logically

Every year I have students that attempt to "prove" lines parallel by stating that they look parallel. As tempting as that reasoning may be, it is simply not valid. Our minds are sometimes lazy and try to make assumptions without proof. Watch yourself and check to see if the data supports your conclusions. It's good to listen to your gut, but don't divorce it from your brain.


Every year I have students that can execute the mathematics perfectly, yet cannot communicate to anyone else how or why they made the decisions they did. Their work is then almost useless, as no else can understand or build upon their results. Our thoughts and ideas are only as good as our ability to communicate them to another. Learn to be clear in your words so that they may be understood.


"Whatever you do to one side, you have to do to another." Algebra students across the country recite this line as they learn how to balance equations. Perhaps we should all be uttering this line as a reminder to create balance in our own lives. Remember that when you add something to one area of your life, you will need to make a change in another so that balance is restored.

Work Backwards

Sometimes my students face problems that feel impossible. They can't even figure out the first step. I teach them to start from the goal and work backwards, teasing out the steps as they go along. In your life, start with your goals and figure out what you need to do to achieve them. By seeing the steps in reverse, even the loftiest dreams can be made possible. Try it.


Math can be hard. So can life. In both cases, it takes perseverance and tenacity to see difficulties through until the end. The rewards that come from determination and dogged spirit are so much sweeter than those that come without the sweat. The only way that failure is certain is if you do not try.

Basics Matter

It's difficult to understand algebra if you don't know multiplication. Likewise, it's difficult to find fulfillment if you're not meeting your basic needs. Start at the beginning and make sure you have a strong foundation upon which to build.


So many of my students enter my room in August convinced that they cannot "do" math. In my 11 years of teaching, I have yet to meet a student that was correct in this belief. My first job with these uncertain pupils is to convince them that they can. Until they believe in themselves, they will continue to fail. The biggest lie we tell ourselves is, "I can't." Stop lying. It may be scary to try, but just think of the possibilities.


One of my favorite quotes hangs right above the board in my classroom:

"Math is not a spectator sport." -- Jerry Mortensen

Neither is life. Don't stand on the sidelines watching it unfold in front of you. Get out there and play!

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