Sandy Spring Friends School



How Dr. Bruce Nkala P ’24 Came to Be a Trailblazer in PK-12 Athletics

How Dr. Bruce Nkala P ’24 Came to Be a Trailblazer in PK-12 Athletics

All these years later, Dr. Bruce Nkala P ’24 still remembers meeting with the Head of School at his high school in Botswana, patiently but persistently asking permission to start a basketball team. 

It didn’t seem fair to him. Why did soccer, track, and other sports get all the funding, while basketball—his passion—wasn’t even offered? 

“No,” the Head of School replied. 

Bruce threatened—affably, as is his nature—to position himself outside his office at every school break until he conceded. 

“I don’t remember for the life of me how long I did that, but eventually he said, ‘Ok, you can have your basketball team.’”

SSFS Athletic Director Bruce Nkala

It’s a story that illustrates not only Bruce’s commitment to and love of sport—he would go on to captain Botswana’s 2005 National Basketball Team—but his firm belief that everyone deserves access to it (and to all types!).

For nearly 20 years, Bruce—in his second year as Director of Athletics at SSFS—has been a leader among PK-12 educators, applying justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) principles to athletics and P.E. curriculum. 

Recently, he contributed a chapter in a book—his second published work—on this very topic, the outgrowth of a collaborative research project with a group of U.S. college professors. He regularly presents papers at conferences across the U.S. on related issues, in addition to other athletics topics.  

Earlier this month, at the National Association of Kinesiology in Higher Education Conference, he presented some sobering research findings. Despite PE being one of the few subjects that address all the domains of learning (cognitive, psychomotor, and affective), intentionally structured instruction that addresses the affective domain—that includes Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI)—continues to be an area of growth. Bruce and his team’s research attempts to answer an important question: if everything that educators feel is important to child development is taught in schools, how can JEDI concepts not be intentionally included—without being looked at as “add-ons or one more thing to do?” Put more directly, how can JEDI instruction receive similar focus to skills like kicking, throwing, and catching?

He and his five research partners (professors from Western Colorado University, Springfield College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Western Michigan University, and The Physical Education and Sports Teacher Academy (PESTA) in Singapore) shared their own research aimed at combating these troubling trends. By understanding the perspectives and mindsets of P.E. teachers during their training and by providing formal instruction on JEDI methods, they found teachers can be taught to more deliberately integrate these concepts into their curriculum.

That can be as simple as teachers inviting all students to suggest a game to play during P.E. class—giving every student a voice, not just those who are athletically gifted and therefore more vocal. 

Teachers can also take more of a problem-solving approach. For example, in “long tail, short tail” tag, as Bruce explains, students have to figure out how to make the game more equitable, so not only the kids with long tails are caught. 

“As an educator, if it’s important, you have to teach it,” he says. “You have to intentionally embed these lessons into teacher training.” Doing so, he argues, enhances cultural awareness and self-confidence, not just in sports, but in all realms of a student’s life. 

His philosophy as a teacher, coach, and school administrator is in large part informed by his childhood experiences. Stationing himself outside his Head of School’s office, demanding a basketball team, is just one example. 

As an educator, if it's important, you have to teach it

Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Bruce moved to Botswana for high school. “I became an immigrant, and immigrants are excluded from so many things. You feel it,” he recalls. “That exclusion drove me to fight for—and teach—inclusion. I’ve always been a champion of making sure everyone has access to the same things.” 

In addition to founding a basketball team at his high school, which continued successfully after his graduation, he played the sport in college, at the University of Botswana. Feeling strongly that women deserve the same opportunity, he created a separate league for them, and served as a coach. (His wife, whom he was dating at the time, was one of his players.) 

“I had no money but found a way to piece together makeshift uniforms with material that a guy had lying around his store,” he recalls. The league has since grown to include upwards of 10 teams. 

After an early stint as an engineer, Bruce decided to pursue his passion, earning a Ph.D. in Physical Education from the University of Botswana. In 2005, his wife—currently an Assistant Professor of Public Health & Biology at Franklin and Marshall College—took a postdoc at Harvard. Bruce and their two children followed her, “to give the kids an experience,” he recalls. 

Little did he know that, after a few trips back to Botswana, their relocation to the U.S. would ultimately prove permanent. 

I became an immigrant, and immigrants are excluded from so many things. You feel it. That exclusion drove me to fight for—and

Serving as a P.E. teacher at Shady Hill School in Cambridge was his first state-side position, and he has been at the forefront of inclusive PK-12 athletics programming ever since. Most recently, before arriving at SSFS, he was the DEI Coordinator and Director of P.E. at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. 

When he interviewed at SSFS, he was struck by its mission statement. “It was one of the few I have seen that includes athletics specifically—and not just athletics, but inclusive athletics.” He knew he would feel right at home. His son, Jaison ’24 has found a home at SSFS, too. To Bruce’s delight, he enjoys the court as much as his dad, and plays basketball for the ‘Beests. 

The joy, gratitude, and commitment SSFS student-athletes bring to their sport have impressed Bruce. And he is excited to build on the school’s strong culture of athletics. Developing physical literacy among students from an early age; ensuring access to teams for all those who want to participate, particularly in the Middle School; and aligning this inclusive approach across divisions—the “14-year program,” as he calls it—are just a few of his goals.

“In the minds of other schools, we are becoming increasingly competitive,” he says. “I want college coaches to see our kids at the top of their lists because they are not only well-coached and technically sound, but also great human beings, reliable, and team-oriented.”  

I want college coaches to see our kids at the top of their lists because they are not only well-coached and technically sound

Two years ago, when he was appointed Athletics Director and joined the SSFS community, Bruce quoted an African proverb that speaks to his philosophy—indeed, his passion—and the mark he hopes to make at SSFS: “‘If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.’” 

If you want to go fast, go alone.   But if you want to go far, go together.  —African proverb


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