young teacher holding a Success sign How the hope of representation inspired ESOL students to overcome language barriers and carry their teacher to victory

At Language Testing International, we see the powers of language learning manifest in all different forms, and a person’s decision to improve their language skills can be in response to a multitude of reasons—especially when there is a sense of urgency to do so. Even more powerful than an individual motivated by urgency is the collective power of a group of individuals who are all motivated by the same urgency and work together towards a common goal.

We heard an incredible example of this when we were joined by special guest Johanna López in a recent episode of LTI’s “Language Is Your Superpower” podcast.

After being named Teacher of the Year in 2017 by Florida’s Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), Johanna López became a member of the county’s School Board. She was the first Latina to attain such a prestigious role via landslide vote in 2018. It was the culmination of a strategic campaign fully managed by her former students coupled with an impeccable career as an educator and advocate for marginalized youth.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Ms. López moved to Orlando, FL to escape her difficult situation and seek better opportunities for herself. As a disenfranchised Latina woman, Ms. López is fully aware that she has been tasked by the community she has served for over two decades to be the eyes, ears, and voice of students, parents, and educators—especially those who look like her and who experience the most disparities. To many, including Ms. López, the announcement of her campaign to become a School Board member meant something far bigger than just a position on the board. It meant the voices of an underserved and underrepresented population could finally have one of their own get a seat at the table.

Ms. López points out the uphill battle that she and her students had to face throughout the campaign, because of their noticeable accent when speaking in English. “So, it was a project because with my accent, I had to set an example to them, so they’d feel comfortable enough to knock on those doors and try their best to speak English to the community that speaks English, because we also have a big community that speaks Spanish as well, but the majority were English speakers,” said López.

Fortunately, Ms. López’s students were up to the challenge and, in many cases, were surprised by the response from neighborhood residents. A few of the students “even have stories of senior citizens crying at their door when they’d see that the [students] were trying to speak English and saying, ‘You have to vote for my teacher. My teacher is going to advocate for me, and for your grandchildren,’ you know, ‘and for the community.’ So, it was very emotional to everybody,” explained López.

The effort put forth by Ms. López’s students inspired English- and non-English-speaking residents alike to rally around her campaign. “You know, this is about working hard, not only for English language learners, but also, for all the people who believe in inclusion and diversity,” said López. “So, for the first time, that seat won by 40,000 votes. That seat usually won by 9,000, 12,000. But, with the mobilization of English-language learners … even the signs were designed by students. Everything was based on my students’ intelligences, skills, and ideas.”

So, what was it that Ms. López told her students to help them face their fears of communicating with complete strangers in English, their second language? She explains that “during my campaign, I also told my students, ‘You know what? My accent is an asset. And that is the way you have to see it. You know, when you speak and you have an accent, everybody is going to know that you speak another language. So, you are bilingual. So, you have to feel proud about your roots and you have to be proud about your accent, because it’s not the accent what is important. It’s not being a perfectionist. It’s about having the commitment and it’s about passion. It’s about the community, it’s about the engagement, it’s about being transparent. People know when you are committed and transparent with them. They know when you’re honest, and when you try your best, and they value that.’ And they forget about the accent… And if they say something, it’s something that is going to help us to be better and empower us to achieve the goal that we are looking for.”

–> Watch a short video in which Johanna tells a story of how her run for the school board inspired students to overcome their language barriers.

WOW! What an inspiring message … and one that clearly resonated with her students as they carried her to a landslide victory. Ms. López’s story goes to show that language is not just a tool, it is an asset, especially when the person wielding the language is using it with positive intent. The community Ms. López serves as a member of the School Board recognized that positive intent within the students advocating for her campaign. And now, for the first time, the Spanish-speaking minority in Orange County, Florida has a voice and a seat at the table; not despite their accent, but because of it!

To learn more about Johanna López’s inspiring story, tune in to our podcast here.

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