A man who faked his teaching qualifications for decades, climbing his way up to become principal of one of Melbourne’s most prestigious private schools, spoke out in defence of teachers working in unqualified areas four years after he was charged for teaching while unregistered.
In a letter to The Age in 2019, Neil Lennie jumped to the defence of those teaching outside their areas of specialty, known in the profession as ‘out of field’ teachers.
Those teachers, he wrote, “can easily master content up to year 10 and even higher”.
“If they are quality teachers with a passion for the subject, these teachers can become as equally effective as ‘in field’ specialists.”
If there was ever an effective ‘out of field’ teacher, it was Lennie.
The former Caulfield Grammar headmaster is awaiting sentence in the County Court after falsifying his credentials to land teaching roles at top private schools since 1976.
The now 72-year-old, who has pleaded guilty to four counts of obtaining a financial advantage by deception, was never a registered teacher. He dropped out of every tertiary course he began, never completing studies beyond year 12.
Using his father’s legitimate teacher’s registration, he lied to schools including Mount Scopus Memorial College, Haileybury, Caulfield Grammar School and Overnewton Anglican Community College before his secret was uncovered.
But although Lennie lacked formal credentials, the court heard he had an ability to teach the most difficult concepts in mathematics and physics, and he inspired his students to great heights.
Professor Sharon Lewin, the Doherty Institute’s director who has played a leading role in Victoria’s fight against coronavirus, was one of nine successful former students to write character references in support of Lennie, in tribute to the positive influence he had on their lives.
Professor Sharon Lewin is one of Neil Lennie’s former students.Credit:Jason South
“He was one of the most inspiring teachers I have had,” Professor Lewin wrote of her physics teacher at Mount Scopus in the late 1970s.
“He was able to teach complex concepts, provide his students with appropriate skills to solve problems and also make the learning fun.
“I remember him very clearly telling me that I was capable of doing anything in life and to shoot for the stars.
“As a young woman in the 1970s, I now understand that this kind of encouragement for women in science was most unusual.”
Other former students – among them a neurologist, doctor, dentist and engineer – wrote Lennie was an outstanding educator who found creative ways to teach and motivate them.
Actor and director Pip Mushin – best known for his role as cameraman Stu in Frontline – had Lennie for maths at Mount Scopus but also remembered him stepping in to oversee rehearsals for a school play.
“I remember Mr Lennie showing us how to approach a particular section of the script and how, as an actor we should ‘feel and act’. It was the first time I had an insight into an actor’s technique and as an impressionable young actor, I remember to this day how inspired I was by this,” he wrote.
Neil Lennie outside the County Court on Wednesday.Credit:Nine News
He was a man of many talents. He directed musicals for the Sandringham Light Opera Company and played piano, singing at various live music venues. He even umpired VFL games in regional Victoria, according to a June 1988 interview with The Age, which marked the start of his tenure as headmaster of Caulfield Grammar School, the pinnacle of his career.
He arrived at Caulfield amid a swirl of rumours about his reasons for leaving his former school, Mount Scopus.
“There was considerable confusion about my reasons for leaving,” he told the Jewish News in March 1988.
“Any who wish to discuss the matter should seek out my fellow teachers who know the truth. However, rumours are destructive and I would prefer that the discussion does not continue. Suffice to say that my leaving had nothing whatsoever to do with my performance as deputy headmaster.”
Neil Lennie (right) established a teaching career on the back of criminal lies to schools that employed him.Credit:Nine News
Overnewton said in a statement: “The school community was extremely disappointed when they learnt of Lennie’s actions”.
Caulfield Grammar declined to comment and Haileybury would only confirm Lennie’s appointment at the school in 1988.
The Victorian Institute of Teaching, which conducts annual audits of teacher and school records to ensure staff are qualified, identified discrepancies in Lennie’s case in 2008 and ultimately alerted police.
The institute said on Thursday it investigated 23 registrations in 2019-20. Most cases involved teachers working before registrations were approved or early childhood teachers being hired without the right registration.
In 2015, the watchdog charged him with unregistered teaching after he was caught out while working as principal of Melbourne Senior Secondary College.
The private college, which predominantly catered to international students, was closed by authorities just months later, leaving students scrambling to find new schools before their VCE exams.
While Lennie told the watchdog he retired as principal of the school in 2008, the chair of the college board and teachers said Lennie had been continuously employed as principal from 2004 until his employment was terminated in 2014.
It would be the last school that employed Lennie.
Australian Parents Council president Jenni Rickard said such a deception was very unlikely to happen now.
“The regulatory requirements are pretty strict today for teachers,” she said.
“Parents can have faith that teachers are well-trained and regulated.”
Lennie’s lawyers say he is remorseful, has apologised to family and friends for the embarrassment caused and wants to say sorry to his former employers.
His barrister, Ian Hill, QC, told the court on Wednesday his client was never motivated by greed but “perhaps a misguided sense of vocation” borne out of his Christian upbringing under parents who were teachers.
Lennie drew satisfaction from helping students, said Mr Hill, who submitted there was never anything nefarious about him never gaining qualifications.
Consumed by his work and married with a child in his early 20s, Lennie never had the time to study at a tertiary level, his lawyer said.
Judge Riddell has had Lennie assessed for a community correction order.
Lennie is on bail and will be sentenced on March 18.
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