The World Needs Us

Emily Ihrke Leadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy of Leadership® Questionnaire, Student Leadership

By Emily Ihrke, LL’15, gcLi Scholar ‘21, Co-Coordinator, PK12 Ethical Leadership Program at University School of Milwaukee (WI)

As a little girl I was painfully shy. Cling-to-my-mother’s-skirt, stomach-ache shy. I couldn’t stand to have people look me in the eyes, and I hated to be away from my parents. Pre-school was sort of OK, and kindergarten, too, because it was half-day and play-based, but by 1st grade I was in full melt-down mode. It was too hard to be away from my mom and my warm house and my younger siblings, so I just refused to go to school. I hated it so much that I was sick most of the time. That way, I got to stay with the people I loved. I could just avoid leaving them, which was best, I thought.

By junior year of high school I was speaking to ballrooms full of delegates at the Badger Girls State Leadership Conference. I was giving political speeches and planning dances. Leading my peers both outside and inside the classroom–at my school and in civic organizations. I was standing up for gay rights in one of the most conservative counties in Wisconsin, before pundits called states red and before mine became one. I was confident and even bold. Practically unafraid at the age of 16.

What had happened? How did that shy little girl become a brave leader?

Leadership development happened. My parents’ patient, accepting love had happened. Dedicated, caring teachers happened. Time happened. And more, I suppose.

Some of it might have been by accident, but much of it wasn’t. Much of it was on purpose, because really thoughtful adults took the time and had the expertise to help shape my life. To them, I’m forever grateful. And to them, I still look for my role models in my own work with young people.

I’ve been teaching Upper School English for the past 24 years, and I’ve also been building and coordinating my school’s PK12 Ethical Leadership Program for the past three. As I do both of those things, I walk a fine line of excitement and patience: of exuberance and equanimity. As much as my own development was about “letting be” and the “push-pull” from my mentors and the many programs and opportunities of which I was a part, so too is my work with the individuals I teach and the program I help lead. We observe and tend, but we also strategize and drive. We have to know when to propel and when to just watch.

To all, there is a season.

This most recent season has been a particularly tough one. The whole world has been sick. Many have died. It has been scary. So, so scary. And through it, we worked. We taught, we led, we showed up, we zoomed. We kept going.

And my: we’re tired.

Still, though, it’s shown us there is no need greater than that of ethical leadership. We must keep on. This fight is worth it.

We can’t cling to skirts, as much as we might want to. We must step forward, stomach ache and all. We must leave the warm house and march on.

The world needs us.


Emily Tymus Ihrke is Co-Coordinator of the PK12 Ethical Leadership Program at University School of Milwaukee. She is also a full-time Upper School English Teacher. Emily lives downtown Milwaukee with her husband Doug, daughter Ellie, and puppy Snowball—the family enjoys all the city has to offer.