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Dr. Grauer's Column - Propinquity

Propinquity refers to the physical or psychological proximity between people. The Grauer School's campus layout was intentionally set up to foster close propinquity. Our students interact with each other while walking through the central quad, swirling into small gatherings forming like eddies.


Propinquity (pro·pin·qui·ty, /prəˈpiNGkwədē/) is a word I discovered on accident.

I tend to be friends with my neighbors and colleagues, and the people I bump into a lot. It makes me familiar and drawn to them more. The people in the next office over are by far the most likely to go along with my neurodivergence and with jokes that only I think are funny. It’s propinquity. Say it three times. Get comfortable with it, because it impacts you every day.

Dr. Grauer with Billy Stern, Grauer Surf Team Coach and Parent - December 2022

In social psychology, propinquity is one of the main factors leading to interpersonal attraction. It refers to the physical or psychological proximity between people. The greater the degree of propinquity, the more likely that people will be attracted to each other and become friends. As a teacher, I learned early on how the opposite of this is equally true, and this has had an essential and strategic impact on the whole development of The Grauer School. Read on.

The first school I helped start was founded by a well-to-do couple. They bought 18 flat acres which were contiguous with more flat acres of adjacent properties. It was a vast and impressive San Diego landholding that would have been the envy of any school developer. Still, even with this huge advantage in prime land, they never managed to get close to full enrollment, and their “school climate” never seemed warm. There never seemed to be widespread connection among their students, and only after I failed to acquire such an amazing property myself, was I was able to learn why.

Once permitting their land, the well-to-do couple purchased 12 portable, relocatable classrooms and lined them up in a long row along the eastern edge of the rectangular property. At the buzzer ending each period, kids plodded out into a huge void where forming patterns was nearly impossible. Many of the kids looked alone and groupings looked sparce.

Grauer students with baby chicks at the Petting Zoo event held during Finals Week - December 2022 - Photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer

When I finally managed to purchase our five acres of land, two of it was prime, undisturbed native coastal sage that we left alone, so we only had three developable acres. I had wanted seven. There have been many unplanned consequences of my inability to get “enough” land. 

Once we had our land for The Grauer School, David Meyer and I purchased six portable, relocatable classrooms and put them in a circle, or something like a triangle. I wanted everyone to feel enveloped or cradled inside our campus. It probably seemed inefficient to some people. I sometimes thought of it like circling your wagons in an old western movie, for safety.

Propinquity is usually thought of in terms of functional distance—that is, the likelihood of coming into contact with another person—rather than sheer physical distance. When the Zenbells sounded to softly mark the end of each period on our new school campus, I started noticing that kids drifted out into the middle, and it looked something like a dance. Kids and teachers could not help but feel directed towards the middle of our campus quad—there was nowhere else to go. They swirled into small gatherings forming like eddies. On our campus, you are rarely alone. Even our sports field is small and bounded by a lush, green hillside, so games feel inclusive, sort of like you are in someone’s home, but an extremely cool home. To this day, when I see students running out onto a regulation soccer field, they tend to look tiny and insignificant unless it’s a big game with crowds all around the sides. I like our small field better for the purposes of connection.

Grauer 8th grade Theatre students perform a monologue together - December 14, 2022 - Photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer

Propinquity can lead to a kinship between people, or a similarity in nature between things. We are all a part of something, like being in the same raft together. When we replaced our portables with permanent structures, we did not fail to employ what we had observed. Most classes naturally funnel most of the students into our small, treed quad with its rolling grass. All kinds of kids are more likely to bump into all kinds of other kids, and interacting across groups becomes routine—not that it’s always easy. Our trees are growing in, and nothing is more heartwarming to observe than students gathering under their shade, eating lunch, continuing their studies, or sharing a break.

Our observations are well borne out in research. When asked (on anonymous surveys), our students defy the norms on questions like, “I connect with others outside of class,” “I feel like a real part of this school,” and “I can really be myself at this school.” [1] Sure, large schools have many more students and “types,” but availability of others is not the same as access to them. David Riesman portrayed this in his sociological analysis with a title that speaks for itself, The Lonely Crowd, in 1950, also the year I was born. 

In 1950, Einstein gave the world an unforgettable image of human separateness: “He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest,” he wrote. “— a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” So much of the architecture and landscape architecture we find on campuses only serves to enhance this delusion. Modern cities and a great many school sites have been developed to control or dominate both people and nature rather than connect them, promoting Einstein’s delusion.

On The Grauer School's campus, once you enter through the Tolerance Gateway, you find yourself hugged on all sides by coastal sage, or the shape of our architecture. We feel a greater kinship with nature and to one another that way, and we have wrapped our central quad with treehouses and shade sails, a swing set to kick our feet out above it, and trail markers to guide us through it all. A great campus is our cradle, our sense of emotional safety, our spiritual lifeline, our interdependence, and our warm sense of propinquity. 

If I bump into you on campus, remember that’s a good thing.

Grauer 7th grade students congregate near the swing set and garden during a classroom break - January 9, 2023

[1] 2022 Challenge Success survey program (Stanford University)

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Grauer students with baby chicks at the Petting Zoo event held during Finals Week - December 2022 - Photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer

Dr. Grauer with Billy Stern, Grauer Surf Team Coach and Parent - December 2022

Grauer 8th grade Theatre students perform a monologue together - December 14, 2022 - Photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer

Grauer 7th grade students congregate near the swing set and garden during a classroom break - January 9, 2023

Fearless Teaching® Book
by Dr. Stuart Grauer

Fearless Teaching® is a stirring and audacious jaunt around the world that peeks—with the eyes of one of America’s most seasoned educators–into places you will surely never see on your own. Some are disappearing. It is a bit like playing hooky from school. You will travel to the Swiss Alps, Korea, Navajo, an abandoned factory in Missouri, the Holy Land, the Great Rift Valley, the schools of Cuba, the ocean waves, and the human subconscious—oh, and Disneyland.

There you will find colorful stories for the encouragement, inspiration, and courage needed by educators and parents. Fearless Teaching is not a fix-it book—it is more a way of seeing the world and the school so that you can stay in your work and focus on what matters most to you.

"Grauer’s writing reminds us that Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

Click here to order Fearless Teaching® today

Dr. Grauer's Column: Archive of Past Columns

Dr. Grauer's Column - The Power Of Fun

This refreshing column explores the life-changing power of fun, in a radical challenge to The Grauer School's Senior Class. What if "real fun" were as important as academic pursuits in a student's journey through school?

Dr. Grauer's Column - 60 Years Of Research On Small Schools

Grauer’s mission is to advance educational technology, methodology and connections as we strive for better ways to teach and learn. For 32 years, the secondary school at Grauer has been a “lab school,” enabling us to create, develop and evaluate methods to the above ends.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Watching Trees Grow

Dr. Grauer salutes Dana Abplanalp-Diggs, who has been chosen to succeed him as the Head of School at The Grauer School. Although this is a time of transition, we know all of the changes will be handled according to “the Grauer Way".

Dr. Grauer's Column - Faculty Housing in Independent Schools

The Grauer School is located in Encinitas, California, an area that has become too expensive for teachers to find housing. Dr. Grauer has an innovative proposal to provide faculty housing as a way of attracting "sparkplug teachers", because there is nothing more important than a safe and secure home for each teacher.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Guardrails

Growing numbers of students are afraid to express their ideas in the classroom. Can we restore freedom and the confidence to speak up by removing some of the guardrails that are keeping them quiet?

Dr. Grauer's Column - Can We Talk About Love At School?

Grauer teachers have long repeated, almost like a mantra: “We love our students!” However, it’s not all that common to talk about love at school. What causes this hesitation to talk about one of the most basic human emotions in a school setting?

Dr. Grauer's Column - Grauer Forest School

One of the founding principles of The Grauer School is the importance of expeditionary learning, where our students learn important lessons from the natural world. More parents and educators who are now recognizing the value of outdoor education and the essential intelligence it imparts upon our children.