From Library to Submarine and Back Again

By Sierra-Nicole E. DeBinion

A generous teacher-librarian is bringing his love of books to students in Washington State

Kirk Van Irvin ’22 (Antioch Seattle, MA in Teaching)
Kirk Van Irvin ’22

“My first role is to get the kids into the library, get them interested in the library, and get high-interest books that they want to read,” says Kirk Van Irvin ’22 (Antioch Seattle, MA in Teaching). Van Irvin is a teacher librarian working in high-needs public schools in the suburbs of Seattle. But getting kids reading takes more than a little doing—it requires making the library somewhere students want to be. 

While this may sound like a plot to promote literacy (which of course it is), on a deeper level it’s Van Irvin’s way of passing on his lifelong love of books. And of using books to connect with young people and help steer their lives for the better. After all, that’s his own story. “I feel the reason I’m here right now is because a handful of people cared enough about me,” he says. “I didn’t make it easy, but these teachers and librarians, they got past that. So now I want to be that person for somebody.”

Van Irvin traces his love of reading back to one person more than anyone else: his stepmom Evelyn. Evelyn came into his life when he was young. As a teacher herself, she knew how important reading is for children and made a point of having books be a big part of her stepson’s childhood. She took him on regular trips to the library. For the young Van Irvin, walking through the tall shelves stacked high with stories left a lasting impression. 

But it was a winding path to become a teacher and keeper of libraries himself. Despite regular encouragement from his family, it took him years—and a lot of life—before he decided to follow in his stepmom’s footsteps and become an education professional. “I kept avoiding being a teacher-librarian,” Van Irvin says. “I had other things I wanted to do with my life.” 

From the Submarine to the Stacks

Ironically, it was a research project, carried out in a library, that led him on a career path deep in the ocean—about as far away from classrooms and libraries as you can get. It was in the 4th grade, and he was assigned a book report but didn’t know where to begin. He went to his librarian, Mrs. Armstrong, for her expert recommendation on what to read for his essay. She checked him out a book on submarines. 

He became fascinated. Soon he was learning all he could about vessels that traveled on and under the waves. And by the time he was a young adult, he decided to join the Navy. 

Van Irvin enlisted in 1988 and served until April 2008. Most of his time in the service was spent below the surface of the ocean in a nuclear submarine. He worked as a sonar technician. He was responsible for underwater surveillance, assisting in safe navigation, and aiding in both search and rescue operations and military actions.

After serving for twenty years Van Irvin transitioned back into civilian life. “I was bored out of my skull,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do.” A month after retirement, Van Irvin responded to a notice at the base’s employment center for reading tutors. It was from here that Van Irvin ended up working with  AmeriCorps. 

Eventually, he started working with children as program staff at the Boys and Girls Club of Thurston County, in Washington. This led him to attend the University of Washington’s Information School, where he earned a Master of Library and Information Science. During this time, he developed a love for bringing libraries to students in need. “There’s a lot of kids that, for whatever reason, don’t have access to a public library,” Van Irvin explains. 

Going Back to School to Teach at Schools

In the fall of 2020, Van Irvin enrolled in the MA in Teaching program at Antioch University Seattle. His work in AmeriCorps and with the Boys and Girls club had helped him see the impact school librarians had on children’s lives. Furthermore, he had experienced firsthand the shortage of people working in this field. So as he studied for his master’s, he began working on his teaching certificate and Library Endorsement, too. 

Van Irvin’s studies at Antioch were supported by the Martinez Fellowship, a scholarship program run by the Seattle-based Technology Access Foundation. “The Martinez fellowship is for educators of color [and] gives networking and support around what it means to be a teacher of color,” explains Rachel Oppenheim, Associate Dean of Antioch University’s School of Education. For Van Irvin, he received early career coaching, access to a professional network, leadership opportunities, and also an automatic scholarship from Antioch. 

One fifth grader who was graduating from elementary school lamented that they had to leave for middle school, so soon after discovering a place they loved at the school—the library.  “It’s comments like that,” Van Irvin says, happiness strong in his voice, “that keeps you going.”

The fellowship provided the opportunity to connect with people he felt he could communicate with about navigating the educational world as a Black man. As Van Irvin explains, “Sometimes it feels like you can only talk to somebody else who is a person of color, somebody who you feel comfortable sharing with. The fellowship was giving people space to get a chance to network and talk.” 

Oppenheim saw the way that Van Irvin brought those values with him into all his work at Antioch. “Van Irvin is a really supportive member of the cohort,” Oppenheim says. “He helped create a strong learning community and a strong social professional community.”

A Teacher-Librarian’s Role After COVID

While still enrolled in the MA in Teaching program, Van Irvin learned that there was a shortage of school librarians in Seattle. He applied for and received, emergency certification to start working as a librarian, immediately. 

Emergency certification allowed his school district to hire Van Irvin as their elementary school librarian. Although this certification is valid for years, now that Van Irvin finished his courses at Antioch, he can take the Librarian Certificate Test. This certification will be an official stamp on the role he’s already been performing under the stressful conditions of COVID-19.

Starting as a school librarian in the pandemic, Van Irvin had a huge undertaking in his role in two high-needs public elementary schools. When he began, he received a mandate from both schools’ principals that he needed to completely overhaul the libraries and their thousands of books. It was an enormous—and exciting—task.

Rather than doing all this curation on his own, Van Irvin decided to consult leading experts in the field of school libraries: students. “The students, they tell you what they like,” he says. “They can tell you better than anyone what they’re looking to see, so I try to get those books.”

In creating this collaborative library environment, Van Irvin has been happy to receive positive feedback from teachers, students, and parents. Parents often come up to him and say, “Oh you’re that guy! You’re the librarian!” One fifth grader who was graduating from elementary school lamented that they had to leave for middle school, so soon after discovering a place they loved at the school—the library. 

“It’s comments like that,” Van Irvin says, happiness strong in his voice, “that keeps you going.”

And Van Irvin is going strong. He continues to update his libraries. He started a Library Squad, where students help him get rid of the old, outdated books and shelve the new ones. He teaches classes in the library and works with homeroom teachers to bring library literacy to their students. In ways large and small, every day he is working to change young people’s lives. And one student at a time, the care he brings to his work is creating the same lasting impacts that he himself experienced when he was just a kid in the library, dreaming of what might come next.

Sierra-Nicole E. DeBinion

Sierra-Nicole E. DeBinion

(Antioch Los Angeles, MFA candidate) has a deep passion for historical fiction, nonfiction, and horror. Based in Palm Desert, she is influenced by her mixed Hawaiian and Irish heritage and is an avid plant and animal lover.