Following Danielson’s advice: "Find What You Love… Do More Of That…"

My last blog post was almost a year ago. If you don’t remember it (or more likely didn’t read it), give it a once over so the rest of this makes sense.

Danielson’s words haven’t just been ringing in my ears since his TMC15 keynote. They have been haunting my soul to return to my love: middle school.

This isn’t going to be a well thought out blog post (sorry, not sorry) because I can’t keep this a secret anymore:
I’m going back to the classroom in about a week to teach 8th grade!

This may be a surprise to a lot of people, but lemme explain:

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A Different Type of "Notice" and "Wonder"

As I was walking down a middle school hallway yesterday, I glanced up and noticed some hand drawn pictures of student faces with the phrase “I wonder…” at the beginning of each one. I noticed statements like:

–“I wonder how many stars there are in the night sky.”
–“I wonder if horses were ever used for something else.”
–“I wonder what New York looks like from the air.”
–“I wonder who is leading rushing in the NFL.”
–“I wonder how many hairs are on my head.”

I was excited at first, thinking this assignment was from a math class where students were asked something like, “What have you always wondered that might be number/math/geometry related?”

When I noticed the next set of pictures, however, I stopped in my tracks and my heart sank as I read:

–“I wonder why I’m here.”

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Why Am I Teaching This?

I’ve had the privilege to engage in some fantastic conversations with math teachers of every grade level in and out of my district. I’ve discovered that sometimes teachers feel that some of the objectives they teach serve no purpose, which leads to frustration. They may think “there’s no real-world application for it”, “it will be done later with a calculator so why bother”, or they feel the objective will never “appear” again anywhere down the line. To be honest, I’ve thought the same thing in my own classroom. Sometimes I was right, and sometimes I was wrong. But I needed someone else (usually a grade/course or two higher) to show me WHY it was important and it led to great discussions that really opened my eyes.

If you feel that way about an objective in your curriculum, please fill out this Google form. I’d also like your Twitter ID to contact you later with questions (if you’re willing).

My goal is to (hopefully) start helping making connections and developing relationships across the grades. I think it would be really amazing to see some collaboration between K-12 teachers**. I want elementary and middle school teachers to see how important they are to laying the foundation to higher level mathematics and also allow high school and college math teachers to see where concepts are being introduced in the lower levels. And maybe (pretty please?) foster ideas for student collaboration between a high school class and an elementary class.

Thanks in advance for your input!

**special thanks to @druinok for helping me work out the kinks of this idea!

Mentor Teacher Advice: 34 (and counting) Things Every Student Teacher Should Know

***Warning: These opinions are MINE. If you’re a mentor teacher who disagrees, then write your own blog post and feel free to link it at the bottom. But based on MY experience, this is what I would love to tell every student teacher.***

You’re an education major and you found this blog post SOMEHOW because you’re scouring the web looking for ideas and advice. I’ve been there, trust me. And I know, I know. You’re like, “Who are you and why should I read this?” I’ve taught for about 13 years and I’ve had about 8 student teachers. I know your fears. I know your mentor teacher’s as well. I’m very well versed in your students’ fears. I’ve had the good, the bad, and the CRAZY. I’ve had student teachers that have impressed me, shocked me, scared me, and shamed me. I’ve gone to my administrators and BEGGED them to offer my student teacher a contract before someone else snatched them up AND I’ve had student teachers removed from my classroom never to return again. In other words, I know what I’m talking about. So why am I writing this? You NEED me to write this – if I don’t tell you, I don’t know that anyone else will. And you need all the brutal honesty you can get right now. So please understand this up front: Everything I say, I SAY OUT OF LOVE because I want you to be the most kicka$$ teacher there is. I love having student teachers. I love to learn from them and be there for every step of helping them find out who they’re going to be for future math students.

Some abbreviations so that I don’t have to keep repeating myself:
MT: mentor teacher
ST: that’s you

And this is a work in progress!!! Today it’s “34 Things…” Tomorrow it might be “40 Things…” By August, it might be “100 Things…” Bookmark and check back. And if you’ve got questions, ASK THEM!!


I really really hope you’ve found this post before you ever go into your student teaching semester.

The second you get your assignment from the placement office, contact your MT immediately. Call the school and leave a message, research the school and find the MT’s email and send a “hello” right away. Don’t just do one, do BOTH. I rarely check my voicemail, but I check my email about a dozen times a day. Some teachers are the opposite. Chances are your MT doesn’t know who you are and doesn’t know anything about you. Most times I don’t know if I’m getting a guy, a girl, a robot… And I didn’t know anything about the ST’s background until we met. Personally, I like to know as much about you as I can. Where did you graduate high school and how large was the school? You may have come from a small school (500 students) and now are placed in a school teaching 1800 or more. What led you to be a teacher? What led you to choose mathematics? Did you major in anything else prior to education? What area of mathematics are you passionate about? Do you read blogs/tweet about mathematics education? Are you married with kids? Have you ever had any leadership roles? All of this is important to me because it will help me figure out who you are and what challenges and perks you might offer my students. But don’t think that pigeon-holds you into a specific category with me. I was a very shy band geek and was introverted as all get out… until I became a teacher. Now I am the complete opposite. Well, still a band geek, but I’m the loud social butterfly on the faculty who isn’t afraid to do crazy stuff at the pep rally, have a dance-off with the kids, and allow myself to be duct taped to a wall to help out with any fundraiser. But the point is, I wanna know you before I introduce you to my kids. Would you set just anybody up with your best friend? NO. Same thing here. You’re about to TEACH MATHEMATICS to MY kids – I wanna know how you’re gonna make that a positive thing.

In that initial communication, don’t be afraid to invite the MT to meet you for coffee, lunch, or ask to drop by the classroom just to say hello. There isn’t enough time during your student teaching experience for pleasantries, so you need to be proactive in getting that process started. It will show your MT you are enthusiastic about teaching and you care about what goes on in his/her classroom. If you can, drop by the classroom after school before you start and bring a camera and notebook. You’re going to have to describe the classroom in your ST paperwork – go ahead and take pics so you can write that up. Ask the MT if there are seating charts, ask for a syllabus, what courses the MT teaches, grading policies, take note of available tech, ask if there’s a required lesson plan format, etc. Also, find out what times your MT expects you be at school and what other “extras” he/she may expect you to do. If your MT is at school, YOU need to be at school. You need to see everything he/she really does outside of the 8-3 day. Again, this shows that you CARE about the responsibility you’re about to embark on.

3. SET UP A BLOG NOW (if you haven’t already)
Um… I said now. Stop reading and go set one up, I’ll wait…. I’m dead serious, so GO!!! Doesn’t matter the site you choose (I have one on Blogger and one on WordPress – I like ’em both), but you need this. If you’re afraid someone will find it, post under an anonymous name – it’s ok, as long as you blog at least 3 times a week. Even if it’s just “copy/paste” from your student teacher paperwork into your blog. You want to document what you see, what you experience, what works, what doesn’t, ask for advice, RANT, etc. Trust me, blogging is the most reflective type of therapy that doesn’t cost A DIME. Be careful about what you post, though. Stay away from actual names. Also, you need a Scribd or Dropbox account so that you can share what you’ve created. Some of my BEST stuff came from my student teaching experience because my mentor teachers were so supportive – I felt like I could do ANYTHING. You might have some fantastic ideas that an old fart like me would love to steal for my classroom.

4. SET UP A TWITTER ACCOUNT NOW (if you haven’t already)
Sigh… are we really going to have to go through this again?? I really don’t mind waiting. Twitter is BY FAR the best PD I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’ve been to national NCTM, ISTE, T+L, T^3, etc., and I’ve never gotten as much from any of those conferences as I’ve gotten from my tweeps. I’ll create a blog post strictly for Tweeps/Blogs to follow and I’ll put it HERE when I’m finished. But I’m trying to stay focused right now. Start following these people and always read the things they post and the links they give. You’re going to get PRICELESS advice and ideas to use that, again, are TOTALLY FREE.


5. Observe, observe, observe. You might be thinking, “DUH…” but it’s more than that. If you begin student teaching after the first days of school, there are hidden norms in the classroom than an unobservant person might miss. Don’t think about what YOU’RE going to be doing for lunch, or after school, or the coming weekend. PAY ATTENTION TO EVERYTHING!!! How do students enter the class? Are they “bookin’ it” to get there on time or is it more like, “meh, whatevs – be thankful I showed up”. Does the MT have a “do now”/”bell activity”, but more importantly, WHAT KIND? How is it done? Is it review or a challenge to get them thinking? Is it multiple choice? Do kids start right away or socialize before it’s started and how do they complete it? What happens when students are late? What if a kid has to use the pencil sharpener? Is talking during class allowed? And if so, under what circumstances? How do kids let the MT know a bathroom/water break is needed? Are kids allowed to “zone out”? How does the teacher let kids know when they’re doing what he/she wants? Or more importantly, what he/she DOESN’T want? How does the lesson flow? Are there “brain breaks” for students to collaborate? If there is technology (calculators, voters, etc.) available to students, how is it distributed to the students and collected? What is the attitude with kids about learning? Is it engaging or the attitude “whatever – just tell me what to write down”? Do kids talk when the MT is talking? Are kids trying to sneak text? Do kids pack up before the bell rings? This is just a fraction of the things you need to look out for before it’s YOUR turn to take over. Regardless, just please understand that your job (unless told otherwise) is to be a fly on the wall. DO NOT interject into your MT’s lesson or try to correct him/her in front of her students (especially when you don’t know what you’re talking about). The best thing you can do is write down questions so that you can talk to your MT during the planning block or after school.

6. If it’s ok with your MT, walk around the room and make yourself known to the kids during group work or individual assignments. Ask questions, offer assistance, be visible, and FOR THE LOVE OF PETE start trying to learn names. Again, ask your MT if this is ok, but if your MT has to whisper, “Get off your butt and walk around the room” to you, this is NOT a good thing.

7. Offer your assistance to the MT to do things like make copies, check the mail room, organize papers in alphabetical order for the MT to put in the gradebook, file, help pick up around the room, pass out assignments/materials, etc. Your MT may be hesitant to allow you to do much, and you need to respect that. But for me, I would have loved for the ST to start trying to get a feel for what I really do during the day so that, in the end, I could sit back and give them feedback on their teaching instead of trying to play paperwork catch-up. But please clear this up with your MT outside of class. Don’t assume you can do something and go after it during the middle of class – you might freak your MT out. Your MT may give you a lot to do or a little – accept it with respect.

8. During the plan block, see if your MT will let you have a peek at the gradebook so you can see how he/she keeps up with grades. There’s not one right way to do this and it helps to see what your MT does. It might spark a “wow!” or it might evoke a silent “yuck…” Ask your MT for sample lesson plans and ask how he/she organizes things like student work, extra copies, make-up work, etc. I always admit to my ST’s that I suck at a lot of organizational stuff and I love to get ideas from them.

9. If there are documents that your MT is required to complete, please give him/her plenty of time to do so. Your MT is still in charge of students, and NOW they’re in charge of you as well. Don’t give them paperwork on Friday and tell them it’s due Monday. Please be respectful of the fact that they VOLUNTEERED to take you on – don’t throw them under the bus and add more stress to an already stressful job.

10. Your MT’s syllabus may cover a lot of things and give you a lot of info first few days. However if you’re not sure about something, ASK! We may forget to tell you something you really need to know I usually ask ST’s to email me with a list of questions. When I respond, I reply in a different color to make sure I didn’t leave out a question. Some questions you might want to ask, not only for student teaching but for your future classroom are:
a) how do you handle HW?
b) how are bell activities graded?
c) is closure required and how is it implemented?
d) does the MT require students to keep/turn in a notebook?
e) what does the MT do the first few days of school?
f) are there any classroom norms that aren’t listed anywhere?
g) what types of duties does the MT do and are you required to assist?
h) what is the MT’s policy for cell phones and/or MP3 players?
i) how does the MT handle/document parent communication?
j) does the MT expect you to communicate with parents?
k) does the MT give a participation grade and how is that documented?
l) does the MT allow retakes on any assignments/assessments?
m) what are the MT’s policies on make-up and late work?
n) how do the students know about upcoming assignments/assessments?
o) where is the bathroom??? (That probably should have been first…)
p) what is expected during lunch?
q) are you allowed to leave during the planning block?
r) how far in advance does the MT need your lesson plans?
Honestly, I know that’s a lot and it’s not even everything you should ask. You might want to ask the MT if you can record his/her answers to these questions. You might have to use them again in your ST paperwork, but this might be A LOT to try and write down. I wouldn’t mind that at all, but if your MT doesn’t want your conversation recorded, please respect that. There may be a reason and, to be honest, it’s none of your business.

11. You’re still in the “honeymoon” phase of student teaching and your MT is still getting to know you. This is NOT the time to puff your chest out and be a know-it-all. It’s great to show eagerness and passion for mathematics, but don’t be a jerk. If you question your MT or give your advice during the middle of a lesson, that crap is going to backfire on you. You will piss off your MT and the students are going to think, “who do you think you are?”. If you have questions, please make sure you think about the way you ask them. YOU are a newbie, the MT is the veteran who, again, VOLUNTEERED to allow you to be in his/her room. It’s fine to ask how teachers handle things or ask about specific situations, but FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD please DO NOT COME OFF like you’re questioning the MT’s authority or integrity. I speak from experience on that and trust me, that’s the kiss of death. Especially if you do it repeatedly… even after your MT has asked you to stop. Have you ever seen “Wife Swap”? Your student teaching experience is somewhat like that. You’ll get your chance to take over (a little), but you have got to remember THIS ISN’T YOUR HOUSE. You’re going to want a recommendation from your MT at the end of this experience and, I’m sad to say, there have been times I’ve had to refuse and it’s HEARTBREAKING.


12. Your MT will slowly bring you into the lesson more and more, but at some point it’s all on you. You need to ACCEPT THE CHALLENGES that you may have with your schedule and deal with it. Your MT might let you choose what classes to get your feet wet, or your MT might throw you head first into the pool. DON’T WHINE. You were given that challenge for a reason and YOU CAN DO THIS. When you get your first job, you might not WANT to teach remedial math, but it’s teach that and eat OR starve. You might be intimidated by an AP class, but that might be the only classes a school can offer you. Whatever your MT throws at you, dig in your heels and do it to the best of your ability. You have to understand that you may have you might have 5 classes to prep while the rest of the student teachers only have one. SUCK IT UP AND DEAL WITH IT, because that’s real life. Do NOT complain about your work load to your MT or your university supervisor. They’ve probably both been in situations worse than yours, so learn from it.

13. Once you find out what courses you’re teaching, sit down with your MT and map out what topics you’re expected to teach over the next few weeks. DON’T PANIC AND DON’T THINK ABOUT THE DETAILS YET. I use a Long Range Planning Guide and you’re welcome to use it or make something similar. Start by writing down the topics you’ll cover each day, when you’re expected to give quizzes/tests, etc., account for holidays and pep rallies and assemblies and every other planning “bump” that might happen. The MT can help you with a school calendar.
You want to start with a big overview.

14. Once you’ve got the course mapped out, ASK your MT for advice. Chances are your MT can already tell you what topics are tough, which are simple, which require investigation, which need more than one class period, etc. PLEASE listen to this advice. Nothing is more embarrassing for you both if you DON’T listen and you get an “I told you so”. There may be areas where your MT wants you to do specific problems (ex: the classic box problem in quadratics, revenue, velocity, etc.) and there may be areas where they expect you to be 100% original.

15. If you listen to NOTHING else that I say, PLEASE heed this advice: TURN IN EVERYTHING YOU’RE GOING TO DO AT LEAST ONE WEEK IN ADVANCE. This doesn’t mean just tell your MT what you’re going to teach and expect him/her to trust your judgement. You NEED their advice. Example: If you’re going to do systems of equations, your MT needs EVERYTHING you’re going to do that day a week in advance. That means EVERYTHING. Every worksheet, activity idea, homework assignment, PowerPoint/flipchart/smartfile, calculator instruction, bell activity, closure, investigation question, vocabulary explanation… EVERYTHING. Why? MT’S CANNOT READ YOUR MIND and you haven’t proven yourself capable to be completely trusted yet. There, I said it. We don’t know if you’re going to be better than us or screw up our kids – we’re nervous. You’re like the nanny we found on CraigsList to ensure the well being of our children in our absence. Like it or not, YOU HAVE TO PROVE YOURSELF to us. It’s that simple. If you give me everything you are going to do in advance:
a) I CAN HELP YOU because, believe it or not, I’VE DONE THIS BEFORE. You may have over-planned so I can show you what to cut if you start running out of time. You might have under-planned so I can help you find a filler. You may be planning to do an example that kids don’t have the background to tackle yet so you’ll have to add some extra stuff to help with that. You may be using 10 examples of something that my kids usually figure out in 2. You may have left out something altogether that is ESSENTIAL for the following lesson. Your activity’s directions might make perfect sense in YOUR head, but NOT in the head of a teenager. You might be underestimating or overestimating what they can do at this point in their understanding. Your MT is there to help you, so PLEASE let us! If we give you advice on Monday, revise and resubmit TUESDAY. The sooner the better. Why?
b) You need time to rehearse. (Uh, rehearse? I’m no actor…) well, guess what, Buttercup? YOU ARE NOW. By definition, most kids assume student teachers are STUPID teachers who don’t know what they’re doing (YES, you needed to hear that). You need to know your stuff forwards, backwards, slantways and sideways and every other kind of way because you have to CONVINCE the students that YOU are an expert. You need them to feel like they’re getting a quality education from you and not some dollar store knock-off. I’ll explain more about this later in the final advice, but TRUST ME. Rehearse your lesson and see what the timing is like. It will go faster in reality than it does in your mind because you don’t know how to control your talking yet. Most education programs do NOT teach that and you will talk 90-to-nothing.

16. Don’t expect to lecture the whole time. Kids need “down time” and you’re going to lose their attention anyway, you might as well take advantage of it with collaboration.

17. Make sure you know how to use the technology available in the classroom. You do not want your first experience with a drawing tool on a Promethean board to be in front of the students because you were too proud to ask your MT to show you how to use it. Your version of PowerPoint might not “jive” with the operating system on your MT’s computer, so you need to make sure you check all that stuff out BEFORE you get in front of the kids. (more on that later)

18. Every student teacher I’ve had has come in with the idea that they can look at their notes while they’re teaching. It’s like a crutch they don’t want to let go of and I have to literally TAKE it away from them. If you are too dependent on your notes, what do the kids think? You know the answer to this….. it’s ok – you can say it with me: THEY THINK YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING. This is another reason to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Things will almost NEVER go according to plan, but the more you’re prepared to teach something, the easier you can handle side questions and those awesome teachable moments that are bound to pop up.


19. Always remember that you are a guest. Your MT might feel like the kids are his/hers and that you will come and go. The MT might have a hard time giving up control to you and might give you 1000 pieces of unwelcome advice. It’s hard to let you have something that ultimately WE’RE responsible for. Please respect that.

20. You don’t know everything. Yes, you’ve been in college and taken tests on theories and read some research, but you haven’t been in the trenches with us to experience it first hand. Your MT has advice and experiences that can help you. Please remember that.

21. Even if you disagree with (or even HATE) your MT, they ultimately have a say in your grade. And, again, you’ll need a recommendation from them when you start looking for work. So be respectful – even if you don’t agree on how mathematics should be taught, you can respect each other in your differences.

22. This is hard for some ST’s to remember, but STUDENT TEACHING IS YOUR FULL TIME JOB. Don’t blow off proper planning for vacations, parties, other jobs, etc. These students deserve the best you have to offer. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying – you need to have a life outside of school. But you’re starting from scratch and sometimes you need to make sacrifices to ensure that the students are getting what they need.

23. You might not remember your students once your experience is over, but THEY WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER YOU. Good or bad, you will make a life long impression on them. Remember that when you plan, prepare, teach and speak to them.

24. Face it, some kids WILL try to use you as a scapegoat to goof off or let their grades slip. They will tell their parents “Version X” when “Version Y” is actually the truth. It’s GOING to happen, especially at the high school level. This is why it is VITAL to always be prepared, make sure your MT is on your side, and you DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. Some parents will know their kid is trying to pull one over on them, but some parents will immediately go for YOUR jugular.

25. WHEN you screw up (not if), GET OVER IT. Blog about it. Tweet about it. Drive to the woods and scream about it. But remember that WE’VE ALL been there and even the most inspiring teachers have screwed up. It’s not the end of the world – use it as a learning experience to make you a better teacher.

26. Don’t expect a perfect score on evaluations from your MT or from your university supervisor. You are still learning. Heck, teachers with 30 years experience are still learning. I bet you thought once you got that degree, you were DONE, huh? NOPE. Education is constantly changing. Students are constantly changing. The world is constantly changing. You have to adjust and learn from it. Every teacher I know has a weakness and the best thing you can do is be humble. Confidence is great, but don’t be cocky and think you know everything there is to know about education because you have a 4.0.

27. Some kids will love you immediately because you’re a break from a teacher they don’t like. Some kids might dislike you immediately because they are comfortable with the MT and they’re fearful they won’t understand you (ST’s in general have a bad rep w/ kids for some reason). If they act like you’re a leech and always run to the MT instead of coming to you, don’t take it personally. Discuss this with your MT. He/she might not mind this, or he/she might want to “cut the cord” with the students and make you totally responsible. You have to be able to adjust.

28. PAY ATTENTION: I’ve said it before, but JUST in case you weren’t focused – SOME KIDS WILL THINK YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING. Like it or not, it is YOUR responsibility (not your MT’s) to show them that you DO know your stuff. This is why preparation is ESSENTIAL. Some kids can be like piranhas, just waiting for you to show any indication of weakness so they can attack you and embarrass you in class. DO NOT take this personally – it’s just the nature of the teenage beast. It happened to me one day and I will NEVER forget it. I wasn’t prepared for a geometry lesson like I should’ve been, and was obviously too dependent on my notes. A kid asked me a question I didn’t have an answer for, I stumbled and stuttered… then the back of the room began singing, “She don’t know much about history… She don’t know any GEOMETRY…” Ugh… worst day of MY LIFE. But I got over it and NEVER came to class dependent on my notes again. EVER. Tough lesson learned the hard way.

29. Be careful of student relationships. Some of you ST’s are young and, even if you don’t know it, THAT SPELLS TROUBLE. Teenagers will take things you say and spin them in their mind so set clear boundaries. Be approachable, but DO NOT fall into being their friend. And NEVER EVER EVER EVER put yourself in a situation where you are (a) texting students (unless you’re using Google Voice) (b) calling students or (c) alone with a student. Those are ULTIMATE no-no’s.

30. Be able to command the attention of the room by being engaging. For me, so much of my teaching is acting – more than I ever thought. If you’ve had a crappy weekend and you broke up with your significant other, IT CANNOT SHOW in the classroom. By god, you put on a happy face, soldier, and act like there’s NOTHING cooler in the world than trigonometric functions! Freakin’ A!!! Always act like you know exactly what you’re doing. If you make a mistake in class, act like you did it on purpose to see if they were paying attention. Shout a resounding, “YES!!! I tried to trick you and you didn’t fall for it. Nice work!”

31. BE YOURSELF. If you’re short, OWN IT. If you’re tall, OWN IT. But BE YOU. Don’t try to be your MT. That drives my kids crazy. I have my own little sayings that are goofy as all get out and my kids laugh and roll their eyes at me. When my ST’s try to use those same little things, it comes of kind of pathetic and the kids just stare – it’s awkward. Come up with your own thing that the kids will remember you for.

32. FACE IT: Some kids will be coming to school from homes, backgrounds, and situations you cannot understand or fathom from your worst nightmares. Sometimes your MT is aware of these situations and sometimes they aren’t. You may see your MT treat a student/situation differently and wonder why. It’s ok to ask about it, but please do it from a respectful point of view. Your MT might know things you (a) DON’T know and (b) DON’T NEED TO KNOW. You need to respect both of those options. Don’t assume your MT is playing favorites. The MT might know that a student is suicidal or is dealing with the death of a parent or has suffered sodomy that exceeds your darkest fears. I guaran-damn-tee you that I know things about students that I sometimes wish I didn’t know. Some of those things give me nightmares. Some of those things make me cry when I see my own child because I cannot imagine a parent being able to… well, you get the idea. But if you think you see something the MT doesn’t, please respectfully bring it up. You may have experiences that allows you to spot things that your MT might miss. Just BE RESPECTFUL.

33. Realize that teaching is going to be hard. It’s going to be tough. You’re going to lose sleep. But, ohmygosh, it is SOOOOO worth it!!!