Kristen Graham | A teacher worthy of apple and pi

Posted: June 20, 2007

Christopher Wiler would love for his students at Chester A. Arthur School to be stars in math and reading.

But the thing he wants most is for the boys and girls he has guided for six years to be ready for the real world.

"Mother Nature help the soul if I ever walk up to them on the street and see them doing what?" Wiler asked his 8th grade class on a recent morning, pausing from a language arts lesson.

Xavia Witherspoon's hand shot up.

"If you ever see us on the corner with a 40 in a paper bag," Xavia said seriously, referring to a common size of bottle used to package malt liquor or beer.

Wiler first taught the South Philadelphia students in third grade, when they sported superhero backpacks and baby faces. But a combination of circumstances - Arthur adding new grades every year and a strong bond with the class - kept him in the rare spot of moving up with his students every year.

Wiler spent much of this year helping the 26 students pick high schools for the fall.

Most chose special admission schools, such as Central High, High School of the Future, and High School for Business and Technology, Wiler points out proudly. The competition at such schools shouldn't faze the 26 students - Wiler spent six years reminding them that they were eventually going to have to measure themselves against their peers around the country, around the world.

A slender 34-year-old who wears a dress shirt and pressed pants every day, Wiler is passionate about his profession.

"We're not playing with a hat factory. We're playing with minds. We have got to figure this out," he said, referring to getting students ready for the larger world.

His classroom, decorated with photos of years past and bulletin boards touting the students' achievements, operates by Wiler's bywords - "firm and fair."

Wiler doesn't tolerate talking, and students caught slumping in their seats get: "Slouching! Not high standards!" He corrects their "ummms," pushes them for perfect pronunciation, and demands they be specific about their dreams - don't just talk about making a lot of money. How are you going to get there?

Academics are peppered with practical lessons. During one recent language-arts period, members of the class wrote and discussed their life goals.

"What's the grand prize of high school, the prize for doing the right thing?" asked Wiler.

Wiler calls on students randomly, through numbers they're assigned at the beginning of the day and a formula he plugs into his graphing calculator. It was Paul Cordona-Johnson's turn to answer.

"Holding high standards. Not doing what everybody else is doing. You do the right thing," Paul said.

Then the class talked about what could sidetrack them: "getting killed," "getting shot or something," "going to prison," "drugs, crime, and death."

Wiler is a teacher who will teach his boys how to tie a tie, who will lend a sympathetic ear. And as the children grew, he has dealt with increasingly heavy issues - the boy who wants desperately to make $1,000 this summer so he and his mother can get an apartment is a far cry from the one who merely needed a referee on the playground.

Still, academics are clearly at the center of Wiler's classroom. He is a math specialist, and his classes have scored multiple wins in the Philadelphia School District's pi contest, which celebrates the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. Every year on March 14 (because pi equals 3.14), math classes are encouraged to celebrate pi in some creative way. This year, for instance, the class won for its pi poster.

In fact, 80 percent of Wiler's students scored proficient or higher on state math tests, compared with 37 percent for all district eighth graders. (Reading scores were at 64 percent, compared with 44.5 percent.)

His students give him high marks. Jamilah Allen transferred to Arthur this year from North Carolina. But her eighth-grade year has made a mark on her life, she said.

"He's the best teacher I've ever had. He knows when to be our friend and when we have to buckle down."

The class's graduation Monday was a bittersweet thing for Wiler - sending his pupils off into the wider world, hoping his years with them had made an indelible impression on their lives.

"I think of them as my own kids, and every kid has to feel good about themselves," he said. "I've been so blessed, so impressed by their love of learning. Some of their lives aren't the best, and yet they have such resilience."

Contact reporter Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or

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