Saying Yes to the Why Nots with Jon Acton
December 27, 2022
Saying Yes to the Why Nots with Jon Acton

Life is full of surprises, and not all of them are good. But sometimes the challenges we go through are the catalyst for changing our lives and inspiring others to do the same.

That’s the case for Jon Acton, this week’s podcast guest. After a nearly 30-year career in education, Jon became a school superintendent in March 2020…just days before COVID hit and schools had to make a big left turn. Then a stage 3 cancer diagnosis changed the trajectory of everything for Jon.

Jon and two fellow educators received the same diagnosis within just 10 months of one another, and after one lost his battle, Jon and his cancer warrior friend decided to take action. They founded Broken Shells, which seeks to remind us all that we’re all “perfektly imperfekt” and that we should embrace the “why nots” in our lives.

Jon has created something out of adversity and I can see how it will inspire others to do the same. Listen in to this incredible story.

About Jon Acton:

Husband, dad, cancer fighter, author, creator of Broken Shells, former school superintendent, principal, teacher, coach.

Jump in the Conversation:

[1:40] – What has led Jon to be a beacon of inspiration
[3:50] – What is Broken Shells
[4:15] – Partners to Broken Shells
[5:50] – Perfectly imperfect life stories – the idea behind broken shells
[8:45] – We have invisible bubbles around us
[9:40] – Our whys and our why nots
[10:55] – When an opportunity arises, ask yourself why or why not
[11:57] – Don’t let the “why not” sphere of time pass you by
[13:25] – Table of influence
[15:32] – Would you be at someone’s table of influence the way you’re living your life
[16:14] – What’s next for Jon
[18:59] – Turbo Time
[19:59] – Your impact can influence others
[21:22] – Jon’s Magic Wand
[23:22] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at education evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education, evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:08
Hi, Jon, it is so good to have you on education evolution today.

Jon Acton 1:12
Thank you so much. It’s a it’s a real honor real pleasure to be here to be with you and your audience.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:18
And listeners today I’m chatting with Jon Acton of Broken Shells. Jon is using challenges to treasure the gift of time. And that just feels like a message all of us need right now to treasure what we have Sutent. Jon, I’d like to start out understanding where things start. So with so many educators and learners struggling right now, what has led you to be a beacon of inspiration?

Jon Acton 1:48
Oh, my gosh, that sounds pretty heavy lobby’s position. You know, you know, our path here is the path that I anticipated. You can go all the way back, I never thought it was going to be an education period. I didn’t listen to my parents, I went to school and got a different degree. And they were correct. Like parents usually are had to go back and get get into education. And I was in the business for 30 years, right at 30 years and holding different positions from a classroom teacher for over 15 years, and then moved to administration and just finished my career as a school superintendent. And the goal was to continue down that path for at least 10 more years, I didn’t know if we were going to stay in the same corporation. But that was the goal. And life has a way of saying your plan. And, and our plan was different. So it was September of 2020, I was diagnosed with stage three rectal cancer, and that that changed the trajectory for everything and where we are today. So went through the treatment plan, I won’t, I won’t bore people with all that. But I went through the treatment plan for a couple of years. And it was July, this past July here. And we were cut, we’re given the option. And we had to do what’s called a medical early medical retirement. You know, it wasn’t the plan. But it is where we are. And it has forced all kinds of different things, different opportunities, but you have to reinvent yourself. Because all I’ve known is education. And it’s been a phenomenal career, phenomenal life journey. But when you are not potentially able to do the job, day to day like we all know the struggles of an education, it does not matter the position is a physically and mentally demanding job, regardless of the position. And when that’s taken away from you. Like I said, You got to reinvent yourself. And so our path has gone into what we’ve called Broken shops, motivational workers trying motivational business where we’re trying to inspire people and to make the most of their time to make to make opportunities to help people right where you are, regardless of school corporation and even outside because we’ve been able to spread our message to businesses as well.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:09
That is so powerful, and who are your partners in crime.

Jon Acton 4:14
So Broken Shells is plural. And there are there are some parts to this that are that Hollywood not would not believe. Three Friends, we all start our teaching career basically at the same school. At the same time, you know, we’re going 30 years back, your audience can’t see it. But there’s now a lot of gray hair. But you know, we were three young guys and started our teaching career together all all high school teachers. And the unbelievable part is we all got basically the same cancer, colorectal cancer all within a 10 month window. Boy, one of those individuals were all three of us were close. One one happened to be my best friend and my best friend passed away would be January one year ago.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 5:00
I’m sorry.

Jon Acton 5:01
Oh, it’s it’s it’s been part of this part of this journey and part of the opportunity that I’ve been able to still talk about my friend Aaron, and talk about his impact and on your students and on his community and, and then Keith Keith is a junior high principal. He’s still working and still fighting this. And we’re both stubborn, but absolutely the toughest demeanors the strongest. That’s the one who took a cancer took the first. So it’s, it’s been a blessing to still talk about my friends, but three of us together, there are seven kids impacted the three wives catcher just doesn’t care. You know, it doesn’t care what who would impact our impacts?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 5:42
Yes. So tell us what you’ve created. Talk about the perfectly imperfect life stories. This is really exciting.

Jon Acton 5:52
Sure. Thank you. I appreciate that. So the broken shells idea, I had kicked around broken shells that always kept coming back to me and over some of our vacations. In World of education, we kind of take for granted, we have some time off that other professions don’t get paid? Well, I understand that. But we have some opportunity. So at different points, we reside in Indiana at different points, were able to go to Florida, and I’m a beach guy. And if I could live on the beach, we would, but I’d walk to the beach, and it was always kind of the recharge set, you know, all break or a spring break. And I would always look for those iconic scallop shells, you know, the fan fan shaped shells that say that three times fast? Well, I could never find, you know, I found multicolored shells, broken shells, crack ones shells with pieces missing. And when it was always rattled around the back of my head, I never knew why, you know, how am I going to use this while it’s still there. It was sitting in one of the treatment days, one of the infusion days where you’re just boy, the cancer people, nurses and doctors, they really do their very best to make you comfortable. But it is it’s an unpleasant experience. You’re sitting in an infusion chair, it’s between six to eight hours at a time depending on what you’re going through. And the broken shells just kind of clicked. And it dawned on me that I was really looking around at fellow patients. And you have some of those poor me moments. And it just clicked to everybody in here again, here’s a broken shell, we are all broken check us. I made an intentional decision when we did the treatments that I didn’t want to infusion, I didn’t want to port. I didn’t want to bring anything home, I didn’t want to show my kids, what we were going through. So we put the IVs in one arm, my arm and I would have my right arm. So I was still a superintendent the time and I could type and answer emails and phone calls. But then I just started typing the broken shells idea. And it really just came to us that our lives we are all broken shells, we are all perfectly imperfect. It might be cancer, it could be depression, anxiety can be divorced, it can be hard, just whatever the 1001 ailments that we all have. And for better or worse, teachers aren’t the healthiest beings, we tend to take care of ourselves last. And this idea that these all these different ailments, they don’t really they Unitas what makes us a unified body is our imperfections. And I’ve said the people talking in different different presentations. Cancer doesn’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, white or black. But more conservative cancers job is to is to destroy and we’re whatever that situation is that might be impacting you. I would tell my staff this and I’ve done this now I’m going to speaking circuit, I say we all have what are called Invisible bubbles. And these bubbles surround each of us and that’s our stuff. We choose if we’re going to tell people what our stuff is, you know, some stuffs obvious. You know, if you’re if you’re in a paralysis or missing a limb, that’s pretty obvious. There’s something right. But I think generally speaking, if people didn’t know me, they wouldn’t know that I’ve got the stuff going on or prior to the to the cancer of a 30 year. Crohn’s and Colitis fire. So everybody has different things. And we intentionally spelled perfectly imperfect wrong. My wife is a former English teacher, so it still makes her twitch. Fun, but but that symbolism is kind of drives home the point of it’s okay, it’s okay, that things aren’t perfect. Like we’re not photoshopped in life.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 9:39
Yes. And so in these perfectly imperfect life stories, you talked about our wives and our why nots and how this shapes our life story. Tell us about this idea.

Jon Acton 9:52
Sure. You know, I think why, you know, you’ve heard lots of different individuals talk about our why’s and I think it’s If you’re an education, you’ve you’ve heard lots of different presentations over the years and the cycle of ideas kind of repetitive. So you may have heard, you know, focused on your why’s, and you know, you may have had a professional development were focused on your whys. And, and I think that’s great, because it really pinpoints what are important to us, you know, but I think for several, it’s going to be our family, you know, our friends, our career. And those are absolutely fantastic things. That is part of our life stories, our lives should be a part of our life stories. Where we’ve really pushed people are is on the why nots, and it kind of all evolves together. My time is a little precious, kind of know what’s coming. So our why nots are a little more important. So when when we’ve had a chance to do some things, I say there’s a cross point, you’ll have an opportunity to do something either personally or professionally. And you have to make a decision that is a why not? Are you going to do it, are you not? And so we’ve intentionally had some why not? Moments where we have done things we probably would not have done five years ago. I’ve used this example in the presentations because it’s somewhat silly, but it is a absolutely personal example of this. Our family, we love Christmas time, we love the classic movie A Christmas Story. Well, the Christmas story house is six hours away from us, it’s in Cleveland, and you can stay the night there. It’s not cheap, but you can do it. So we’ve done a why not? And taken our kids. And we did that last year. And I don’t know if we would have done that five years ago, right? The Why not moment. I tell people those moments in life. Why not eat your chocolate cake? First? There’s no dessert, right? I mean, no one’s gonna come arrest you. So whether it’s personal, or whether it’s professional people out there listening and going, do I go get that advanced degree? You know, why not? What are you waiting for? Because there’s a why not? sphere of time that has passed for me? I did want to get my doctorate? Well, that’s not going to happen. I will be fine. But it’s one of those regrets of the why nots that I just didn’t accomplish. And I really hope that whether it’s personal professional people don’t run into this kind of wall, like I have with some aspects.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:27
I think that this idea of why not, is really hopeful and empowering and like, like you said, why not have dessert first? Or why not take a mosaic class, even if you’re not artsy at all? Or why not? If something is kind of this, you were kind of just kind of feeling like, wow, this is making me curious, or I wonder, why not explore that, to me, that is such a hopeful way to look at live. So I really appreciate that you’re encouraging people to remember the why not. And I know you also in your, in your presentations, in your workshops, in your trainings, you also look at gratitude and how people influence us. Would you unpack that a little John,

Jon Acton 13:21
I’d love to, we talk about something called the table of influence. And the table of influence, the parameters are really the same for everybody. But the people that will sit at everyone’s table of influence are very unique and very individual, and table of influence are those individuals who have had a positive, hopefully a positive impact and influence on on you on your life, whether it be personal professional, and we say, I asked people I challenge them, I said, pick six people, you may get six, you may have them right off right off the top of your head, you may have to think about 10. But six people that have made an impact in your life, that have helped you get to where you are at this point, your classroom teacher and aide and administrator, whatever your position is, in the education field, if it’s outside in the business field, whatever it is, write them down, write those six names down, and then start really thinking about why why did you pick those individuals? What was that moment, or moments that have impacted you that have resonated with you that are things that make you smile when you think about them? And then we then we get into that gratitude aspect? And we ask a real simple question or questions. Isn’t that Have you ever told them that they’re important to you? Have you ever thanked them? And because all of us are so busy in our lives, we tend to go from one activity to the next and especially in the world of education, right? We’re sometimes we used to live bell to bell and that that permeates even outside the school day. But sometimes we forget to thank those that have helped us and we will remind other people to do it but we forget to do it ourselves. Then I make people dig even deeper. Because all the people that you’ve written down, are you reflecting on I say, thank you. Well, can you still thank them? Are they still here? Or did you lose that opportunity? And they left this world on to the next. And if they’ve left it, it’s one of those, you know, why not moments, you’ve missed opportunity. So, so make amends for that and make sure you’re talking to, to the individuals that are still left. And then it’s not a gut punch moment. But I hope it is a reflective moment for people that are less would you be on someone’s table of influence, the way you’re living your life, the way you are? Mentoring some, you know, if you’re an administrator, the way you are forging or not forging relationships with everybody. That’s kind of the crux of of everything, your ability to build relationships and climate and culture production. Are you going to make someone’s table of influence by the way you operate in your life? And the only can answer that as yourself, you know, as you look in the mirror? And if you aren’t doing that, why not?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 16:03
Back to the why not? Question? Yes. So you’re presenting your training? What’s next for you and your mission?

Jon Acton 16:14
We bought a Powerball ticket, but it didn’t work. So we’re back at it. So we’re, we’re at the final stage. It’s been to me, it’s been a long process. And my wife tells me it’s a very short process. But we’re at the final stages of finishing a book called broken shells, broken shells, a perfectly imperfect life journey through answer, boss love and leadership. And we wrote this together, my wife has already written a book, she’s the talent in the family, I just ride her coattails. And so she she has helped me with this process. But we talked about what’s been like to go through the cancer journey as the patient. And then my wife, Lindsay, she, she’s writing kind of chapter versus chapter, back and forth. She writes about what it was like as the caretaker. We talked about some of the unique challenges because I started my career as a superintendent at a very interesting period of time, nothing has been normal for 10 years, right. So I started on March 2 2020 10 days, 10 days later, things changed dramatically. Three months, four months after that, I’m diagnosed with cancer. And the ride has been a little bumpy. But we’re still on the ride. We’ve we fight hard to have no poor me’s and we talked about that in the in the book. And, you know, I hope when it gets out and my target date is, is the end of next month, my wife says it might be January. So we’re going back and forth on that. But it will be out soon. My hope is that it helps somebody as they’re going through either their cancer journey, or they’re yes, they’re a caretaker. And they’re wondering why they’re their family member, their patient is a jackwagon at some times, because I was there’s a reason for it. And you may not be able to, to articulate it, when you’re in the middle of actually, when you’re middle of the storm, you’re just trying to survive, you may not be the most pleasant individual. So hopefully it helps a little a little bit when people kind of demystify the cancer process. I hope this isn’t accurate, but I bet it is for listeners and your show that they’ve had some of people have had their own cancer journey, or they absolutely know someone that’s been on it. And probably if you’re in this profession long enough, you’ve lost a colleague to it over the years.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:34
Yes. John, I’m so glad that you’re putting this down in a book and that we’ll be able to journey with you and learn from your journey.

Jon Acton 18:47
I hope it’s helpful. It’s not a pop up book. So I think it will, I think it will be useful, or at least, that’s our hope that’s the goal. Yeah,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:58
I am going to pivot and we call this turbo time I would like our listeners just to learn a little bit about you. The person behind broken shells are one of the people behind. So first question, what’s the last book you read?

Jon Acton 19:13
In a pit on a snowy day by Mark Batterson. And it really when I reread it, the book had helped me on this journey of a blind arts

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:23
and who are two inspirational folks you’d love to meet

Jon Acton 19:27
Thomas Jefferson, probably the smartest Americans ever lived. And I’m a football. I’m an old football guy or football coach. So my favorite coach was Paul Bear Bryant from the University of Alabama. I wish I could have met coach Brian,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:39
how about the biggest thing you wish folks knew about influencing others?

Jon Acton 19:46
It’s all about the relationships. And I would say that your impact has a positive or negative potentially generational impact. Andy Andrews wrote about a book called the butterfly effect. And each of us has an impact and sometimes we don’t even know how, how generational that impact can be?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:04
Boy, that makes us pause and think about what kind of influence we are. Yes, ma’am? How about a pet peeve of yours?

Jon Acton 20:15
I worked for an individual who talked in the third person. And that was, that was like grinding your fingers on a chocolate chocolate or talking to a person I struggle with?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:27
Yes. What’s your favorite thing about maximizing your time?

Jon Acton 20:32
I think some of the things we talked about, it’s those why not? components and understanding. You know, we’re down to the part where we route his reality. We may not have a bunch of quantity. I’m aware of our future, but the quality of times is, has been substantially enhanced and improved.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:54
Yes. And what’s something that most folks don’t know about you?

Jon Acton 20:59
I start I did not start education and starting business. I was actually a disc jockey. I worked like 3am overnight. in Terre Haute, Indiana. Hi, Nabina Gerald’s number one country that didn’t last long. But that’s how I started.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:18
Oh, that’s fun. I like to wind up with a magic wand moment. And everything that you’re sharing, to me has a direct connection to mental health. And right now our youth and young adults are experiencing rising mental health concerns. So if I were to hand you a magic wand, and you could change anything about our youth and young adults mental health, what would you wish for?

Jon Acton 21:47
One, I wish for them to give themselves grace. They have they have lived through the most difficult period in the history of our country educate, there’s not been a more difficult position. And so the media social media, we’d like to pound on not just educators, but we like to pound on kids, you know, they are behind learning the learning gaps. Well, I hope they give themselves some grace, because there has not been an adult that has ever gone through and walk through their steps that they are doing right now. And they’ve got time to make up whatever ground was lost, they have time to decide what they want to do with their life. If they don’t know what I used to tell our seniors and our classmates, if you don’t know what you if you don’t know what you want to do at this point of your life, join the club, because the majority of people your age, give give yourself some grace and the opportunity to explore and expand and and find your passion. And if you can do that, you’re gonna have a wonderful life.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 22:49
I love it. Thank you, Jon, thank you for using your story using the lemons that life has handed you and creating this wonderful resources, lemonade that serves others. It’s been an honor having you as a guest today.

Jon Acton 23:06
Thank you very much. And I just wish I wish you the best in the holidays. And as you go through this and just blessing to everyone, thank you for letting me be a part of this,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:15
of course.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:24
It seems like many people have been thrown a curveball in the last few years, or more than one. Jon is an inspiration as he chooses to use his challenge of cancer as a way to serve others. His book shares the lows and challenges he went through, as well as how to get to a place of gratitude and think of our table of influence. As I paused I was wondering, who would sit at your table when I think of who would sit at my table six people who come to mind between the ages of 12 and 21. I would say thank you Gary Brantley for being a middle school social studies teacher who brought learning to life and let us experience what we were studying. Something I aspire to do with my micro school students.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:18
I would say Thank you Gloria bagni for fostering the love of Spanish. That led me to study in Mexico and Spain and then work in international schools. And thank you Mark Weldon for trusting me with independent study work and special education that piqued my interest in high school. And then in college, I would say Thank you, Dennis Martinez and Vicki Swartz for mentoring me and helping me think outside of the box about education. And finally, I would thank Pat Davis for opening the world of spiritual direction and personal growth. Thank you mentors of mine and all of us Let’s eat. See if there are ways we can add this element of why not look through this lens of possibility. I see it helping us Lighten up, live fully and maximize each moment. And my bet is there are many ways that we can weave in this, why not to include our youth. Here’s to being perfectly imperfect, and maximizing our gift of time. As always, thank you for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 25:40
I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit for a free 15 minute call. And let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together. Thanks again for listening. To support the education evolution. Subscribe so it lands in your podcast app and gets out to more decision makers. Then rate and review it. For more information in show notes go to education evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued and thriving. We are in this together and we need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. Thank you for listening, signing off. I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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