Anthony Pullins didn't want to take his state-mandated reading and math test, or even read a book, when he walked into Barbra Burke's classroom.

But the Austin Meehan Middle School teacher soon had him doing both. In fact, the eighth grader finished a book - the first he says he has finished since third grade - and scored perfect on a quiz she gave him, another first.

Burke's ability to motivate such students as Anthony earned her the district's highest distinction yesterday. She was named the Philadelphia School District's teacher of the year.

"I just truly can't believe it," Burke, 57, said in an interview earlier this week at the Northeast Philadelphia school after she was named a finalist. (The name of the winner was kept a surprise until an awards banquet yesterday evening.) "It's such an honor. I'm just thrilled. Every teacher here deserves that as much as I do. I'm just the lucky one, I guess."

And so is her husband, Bill Burke Jr. Since he found out she's the district's East Region nominee for the award, he reminds her of it every night.

" 'I'm sleeping with the teacher of the year for the East Region,' " he kids her.

"I'm like, enough already, Bill."

Burke was one of 12 finalists from among 11,000 teachers. The award was named for the late Ruth Wright Hayre, a renowned district educator. Teachers are chosen for distinguished service in one or more areas, including "planning and growth, high expectations for students, classroom environment, self-reflection, professional growth, and commitment to equity and cultural sensitivity."

Burke will receive a $2,500 stipend from Lincoln Investment Planning.

As literacy leader at the school, Burke works with 17 literacy teachers, in addition to running her own classroom.

Last summer, Burke gave her classroom an "extreme makeover." She moved in a couch and recliners, donated by her mother-in-law, to give the room a more comfortable feel. One recent morning, a half-dozen students were sitting on the furniture, their faces buried in books.

She also bought 100 gallons of white paint so that her classroom would have a fresh look. The building engineer painted it and added a special touch: a coat of fire engine red on the pipes in one corner of the room.

Spending her own money on school-related activities is a common practice for Burke. She rewards high-performing students with after-school trips for pizza and burgers and hands out Jolly Ranchers as freely as she does smiles.

Rule No. 1 in her room: "Smile and be happy."

"She's nice," said Anthony, who is now on his seventh book in a series.

"She's a wonderful teacher. She's very bright. She has a lot of spirit," said Alice Chattin, 13. "She never yells at us."

A native of Philadelphia, Burke attended district schools, graduating from Frankford High School and attaining her bachelor's degree in education from Penn State. She also has a master's degree in education from Arcadia University.

She began teaching in the district in 1972, but left five years later after her son was born. For the next 23 years, she was a stay-at-home mom, raising Bill Burke III, now 30 and a radiologist, and her daughter, Kelly, now 28 and a hair colorist.

Burke decided to return to the classroom in 2000.

"My only regret is that I didn't come back sooner," said Burke, who is now a resident of Mount Laurel, N.J. "I didn't realize how much I loved it."

She adheres to a lesson she learned from her mother when her daughter, as a preschooler, stuttered.

"My mother said: 'Barbra, slow down. You have to listen.' I think that's what every child out there today needs."

Meehan principal Mary A. Jackson said Burke fulfills many roles at the school, including talent show director, National Junior Honor Society chair, and chair of the eighth-grade graduation. She works well with faculty and administrators, but most important, with students, Jackson said.

"She gets to know each student as an individual person by requiring them to write a history about themselves and their families," Jackson wrote in a nominating letter.

The students appreciate the connection.

"I personally love Mrs. Burke," wrote student John Ward in a nominating letter. "She's like a mother for what she has done for me. Now when I read a book, I can understand what I'm reading. Three months ago, I could not. So, I think she deserves this award."

Other finalists for the award were Robert Hamm, Meredith School; Karen Trzaska, Clymer School; Margaret M. LaMare, Hackett School; Jacqueline Sissoko, Olney High School West; Michelle Tisoskey, Duckrey School; Judith I. Acevedo, Taylor School; Eileen Simmons, Greenberg School; Gisela Johnson-Smith, Central High School; Denise Walker, Sharswood School; Shira Rudavsky, Motivation High School; Jamie E. Pancoast, Mifflin School.

Other awards presented at last night's ceremony include:

Marcus A. Foster Award for outstanding district administrator: Donna Piekarski, officer, Office of Early Childhood Education.

Leon J. Obermayer Award for outstanding alumnus: Linda S. Mill, senior vice president, Wachovia Corp., a graduate of Philadelphia High School for Girls.

Richard H. de Lone Memorial Scholarship ($4,800), awarded to an outstanding senior at a Philadelphia high school academy: Azsherae Le'Shay Gary, Communications Academy, Roxborough High School. Other de Lone scholarships of $1,000 each will go to: Korinne Dennis, Health Academy, Lincoln High School; Joseph Jones, Urban Education Academy; Parkway West High School; Andrea Mack, Business Academy, Roxborough High School.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.